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A Profile of Dr. Ken Atwater, HCC President

Silhouettes (published May 8, 2015)
by: Tiffany Razzano

Dr. Ken Atwater

When Dr. Ken Atwater first accepted the role of president of Hillsborough Community College (HCC) in 2010, he knew that before anything else he needed to learn as much as he could about his new community.
He’d held leadership positions at community colleges around the country and had nearly 30 years of experience as an administrator when he joined HCC, including his most recent role as president of South Mountain Community College in Phoenix, Arizona.
But Tampa was a unique community and HCC, an urban, multi-campus community college, was a unique school. Plus, he was brand new to the area. So he wanted to know what made it tick and how it could be better served by HCC.
Each of the previous colleges Atwater worked for “had the same values and goals, but they were still very different,” he said. “They each truly reflected the community they served.”
So for eight months, he met with anyone who would talk to him – political leaders, religious institutions, civic organizations, business owners, even administrators from the University of South Florida, the University of Tampa and St. Petersburg College.
“If you’re going to be an effective leader of any community college, then you’ve got to be in there with the community,” Atwater said. “I went on somewhat of a listening and learning tour when I got here. I spent most of my first year reaching out to all aspects of this community.”
It was also a good way to gauge HCC’s role in the community.
“I was able to get a good feeling about how people in the community felt about the college,” he said. “I also asked them if the college could do something for them, what would it be?”
Atwater grew up in Jackson, Tennessee, where his mother worked in a department store and his father worked for the Tennessee Valley Authority.
He attended Murray State University, a four-year college in Murray, Kentucky.
“I always say I would have made a great community college student,” he said.
He recalled being overwhelmed during his freshman year.
“I was a good student, but undecided,” he said.
During one class, which was rather large, a professor and graduate assistant would often walk in, assign students a number, hand them an assignment and then leave.
“I would have excelled in a smaller classroom environment,” he said.
In 1977, Atwater earned a Bachelor of Science degree in speech, theater and sociology. He stayed at Murray an extra year and in 1978 he earned his Master of Science degree in guidance and counseling.
Later in his career, he graduated from the Executive Leadership Institute of the League for Innovation in the Community College as well as the Institute for Leadership Effectiveness at the University of Tennessee. And in 1989, he earned his doctorate in higher education with a focus on community colleges from Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, Illinois.
It was during his junior year at Murray that he realized what he wanted his career path to be.
“I decided I wanted to be a community college president,” he said.
He had two mentors – friends who were several years older than he – who were working toward becoming community college administrators.
“So I got to watch their careers grow,” Atwater said. “And they would talk to me about what it means to be a community college educator.”
From Murray, he returned home to Jackson and took a job as a counselor at Jackson State Community College. He worked his way up to dean of student affairs.
From there, he climbed the community college ladder.
“These moves were all made with the idea that I was gearing up to become president of a community college, to lead an institution as dynamic as this institution, [HCC,]” he said.
He spent time as dean of students at Catonsville Community College in Catonsville, Maryland, followed by a move to Midlands Technical College in Columbia, South Carolina, where he was vice president for Student Development Services.
Atwater headed back to Maryland, where he served as vice president and dean of students at Howard Community College in Columbia. This was followed by five years as vice president for student services at Kellogg Community College in Battle Creek, Michigan.
He spent nine years at South Mountain before coming to HCC.
These various roles “gave me a thorough understanding of what is needed to lead a community college,” he said.
When he applied for the job at HCC he already knew the college’s then-current president, Dr. Gwendolyn W. Stephenson, who was retiring, through a national network of African-American community college administrators.
“At the time, there were only 60 to 70 African-American community college presidents when I came on board,” he said, “and there are about 1,200 colleges. It’s a very small network.”
So Stephenson was a mentor for Atwater.
“I learned about the college from her before I was hired,” he said. “So what I had to do when I came in was learn the community.”
At HCC, he identified three pillars of success. Community collaboration and partnerships were one of these pillars.
It was something the college was already doing well, he said, working closely with various corporations and industries in the county to offer certification and specialized degrees – from the automobile industry to special programs for companies like TECO Energy and Amazon to the police and firefighter academies.
“These partnerships were already embraced by the community,” he said. “I wanted to build on that. And it’s not just me, it’s the team who constantly works on renewing these partnerships and building on these partnerships.”
The second pillar he identified was student success and graduation completion. He wanted to target not only students who are likely to drop out, but also those who take a few classes at HCC before moving on to a four-year institution. He’s encouraging students to earn their two-year degree before transferring to another school, and also reinforcing the importance of certification or two-year degrees for certain fields.
“If you’re going to work in the 21st century, a post-secondary education is a mandate,” Atwater said, whether you want to become a doctor or a welder. “Whatever choice you pursue as a career, you need that education.”
In nearly five years at HCC, he’s seen the number of students earning a two-year degree increase.
“I judge my success by the number of students whose hands I shake at graduation each year,” he said.
The third pillar for success is the use of state-of-the-art technology on campus. The college is continuously updating outdated technology infrastructure.
“We live in a tech-based world,” he said. “This is the information age. We’re constantly sprucing up our tech base here.”
Over the past several years, Atwater has also become a community college leader on a national level.
He’s currently chair of the American Association of Community Colleges Board of Directors. The organization represents the nearly 1,200 two-year, associate-degree granting colleges in the country. Initially, he was elected to serve on the 32-member board, which eventually elected him chair.
“So I’m at the forefront of advocacy for community colleges on a national level,” he said.
He’s been invited to speak at the White House on the subject and has worked directly with Vice President Joe Biden on the topic.
“It’s a very aggressive leadership role,” he said.
One of the group’s goals at the moment is making it easier for students to obtain Pell Grants by shortening the application process. It is also working to change a policy that prevents individuals who default on student loans from being eligible for Pell Grants.
“That’s the closing of the door on a lot of people who wouldn’t be able to attend community college otherwise,” Atwater said. “We hope to decouple eligibility for Pell from loan default.”
In Tampa, he serves on the board of directors of the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce, the United Way of Tampa Bay, the 1844 Council of the Tampa Metropolitan YMCA, St. Joseph’s Hospital, the MOSI National Board, and sits on the CEO Council.
He’s also the chair-elect of the Tampa Hillsborough Economic Development Corporation.
“I’m really excited about doing this,” he said. “Our goal is simple: What’s best for Tampa Bay?”
He added, “I love being here at HCC and in Tampa. I love what I do.”

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