Businesses buttressed FSU campus threatened with closure

When the Panama City campus of Florida State University looked to be on the budget chopping block, it was the business community that stepped in to save the day.

Ken Shaw, the dean at Florida State University-Panama City, peers from his office overlooking St. Andrew Bay and muses that he could probably get a job at a larger campus. But he quickly perishes the thought and confesses, "You know, I truly wouldn't want to."

The waters of the bay this day are calm, but Shaw is a mile high. He has learned that FSU-PC's senior electrical engineering design class finished second among 42 schools that competed in the NASA University Student Launch Initiative. The competition challenges student teams to design, build and launch a reusable rocket to precisely 5,280 feet above ground level.

FSU-PC, competing for the first time, came within 37 feet of perfection, beating out schools that included Georgia Tech, Vanderbilt, California State Polytechnic University and MIT.

"That's just great," Shaw says, shaking his head in near disbelief. "Really great."

It's the kind of technical achievement that Shaw, a math whiz, has a particular appreciation for and one that he hopes will inspire additional students to pursue science and engineering degrees at Florida State's "Campus on the Coast."

Enrollment growth has been Shaw's chief and inescapable focus since he was named dean in August 2009 following two stints as acting dean. Arriving first as an associate professor, Shaw has been a part of FSU-PC for 23 of its 30 years. The past three years, as it happens, have been the most tumultuous in the campus's history. But Shaw, throughout, has been an unflappable optimist.

In April 2009, then-FSU President T.K. Wetherell and an FSU budget crisis committee released recommendations that included closing the Panama City campus. When the news broke, Shaw was preparing to preside over an annual conference of the National Association of Branch Campus Administrators, hosted by FSU-PC. The resulting pall had Shaw's peers offering him condolences.

The news of FSU-PC's death, however, would prove to have been greatly exaggerated. Hundreds of people responded to a rallying cry by flocking to a "Save Our Campus" assembly and flooding officials in Tallahassee with a torrent of email.

Wetherell caved a little. FSU-PC would sustain substantial but non-lethal budget cuts, necessitating the elimination of 20 jobs. And, in offering a reprieve, Wetherell presented the branch campus with a formidable challenge. He called upon FSU-PC to become financially self-sufficient within three years and commissioned the formation of a blue-ribbon committee of business and community leaders (see sidebar) to help the campus figure out how to achieve that goal.

FSU-PC is getting there.

Enrollment, which stood at 985 students in fall 2008, grew by 29 percent to 1,270 in fall 2011 due to stepped up recruiting efforts; new and strengthened community partnerships; and what Shaw sees as potentially the "most impactful and insightful development" in FSU-PC history. He is thrilled that FSU-PC is home to a new college of Florida State University, the College of Applied Studies.

"I'm very excited about the opportunities that this new college represents," Shaw says. "We will be better able to meet the needs of Northwest Florida and communities around the country. This is a pivotal, positive change."

Today, the college comprises two new academic programs, Public Safety/Security and Recreation, Tourism and Events. The former program's online curriculum has attracted the attention of the Florida Department of Corrections and police chiefs and sheriffs nationwide. The latter recognizes the primacy of tourism in the local economy. Both are expected to significantly stimulate enrollment and both relate to efforts by Shaw, who serves as dean of the new college, to apply lessons he learned in reading J. Abner Peddiwell's "The Saber-Tooth Curriculum."

Peddiwell's classic satirical work, first published in 1939, pilloried public education for its tendency to stubbornly perpetuate curriculum of no practical relevance. Shaw trusts that, at FSU-PC, relevance will sell, particularly when it leads to good jobs in a tough economy.

Shaw also views community partnerships as invaluable extensions of the FSU-PC campus and as enrollment stimulators.

"During the Gothic period in Europe, every community wanted its cathedral to be the best and the biggest," says Shaw, embarking on an extended metaphor. "It reached the point where the limits of traditional church architecture were reached. Flying buttresses were invented to reduce the pressure on stone walls.

"At FSU-PC, I think of our community partnerships as flying buttresses. They make possible a larger presence than we would otherwise have. And they are a key part of what I like most about this campus — its symbiotic relationship with the community. That relationship is awesome and it's one I don't believe I could ever leave. It's like Isaac Newton said: If I have seen further, it's because I have stood on the shoulders of our community's giants."

No matter how Richard Dodd might feel about being called a buttress, Shaw regards him as one. Dodd is a professional engineer and president of Panama City-based GAC Contractors, providers of road-building, site-work and building construction services. Not long after FSU-PC began its Civil and Environmental Engineering Program in 2002, Dodd helped bring about a partnership between that program and a number of his peers. He and colleagues at GAC combined to pony up $25,000 to endow an engineering scholarship. Subsequently, 10 more engineering firms would do likewise.

The Civil and Environmental Engineering Partners meet twice yearly to receive updates on the campus's engineering program and to become familiar with opportunities to assist students. In addition, the partners serve on steering committees that oversee academic areas within the program.

"Sometimes, academe can have its head in the clouds," Dodd says. "We work to make sure the program is linked to reality."
Peddiwell would approve.

"When the design and construction industry in our area is strengthened, the whole community benefits," Dodd believes. "The industry provides high-paying jobs so that people can enjoy a higher standard of living and better quality of life. We may not benefit directly, but engineering firms support the local campus of FSU because it is so vital and critical to the economic development of the region."

Denise Montford, a clinical care specialist at Covenant Hospice in Panama City, chairs the Social Work Partners group that was created last fall. The partners are established social workers who supervise internships completed by FSU-PC students.

And, like the engineering partners, they help shape curriculum, ensuring that it thoroughly prepares students for careers in the field.

"For example, we recommended that documentation and medications be addressed, and that has happened," Montford says. "We're concerned about educating the community, too. In the media, social workers are usually seen taking children away from parents or reviewing food stamp applications. But we are so much more than that.

"We work for hospice organizations, not-for-profit organizations, the Veterans Administration, the Social Security Administration and employee assistance programs. We work at the macro level as change agents and community organizers.

By combating misunderstandings about social work, we can lead more young people to consider careers as social workers and help FSU-PC with its enrollment growth."

Branch campuses conveniently make available to students living in satellite locations degree programs that they would otherwise have to relocate to pursue. In addition, they may establish unique niche programs. Two such programs at FSU-PC enjoy stellar, international reputations. That can't be bad for enrollment, either.

FSU-PC's Underwater Crime Scene Investigation Certificate Program is one of a kind. It's the product of the combined efforts of the faculty and staff of the campus's Advanced Science Diving and Criminology programs. Together, they wrote protocols for working underwater crime scenes replacing, Shaw explains, a "snatch-and-grab mentality about collecting evidence underwater with many of the same collection and forensic science techniques used on land."

The master's degree program in psychology at FSU-PC is one of just 14 in the country accredited by the Association for Behavior Analysis International and attracts applicants from all over the world. In conjunction with the graduate program, the campus maintains a non-profit early intervention and community outreach initiative, the Early Childhood Autism Program (ECAP). It provides behavioral treatment for children with developmental disabilities using only evidence-based methods that have been demonstrated to be effective.

George Butchikas, whose daughter, Camille, was diagnosed with autism in 1993, has been raising money and writing checks to the ECAP program since 2001. The owner of Angelo's Steak Pit in Panama City Beach, he was inspired by Camille to form the George A. Butchikas Foundation, which is dedicated to making affordable occupational and speech therapy available to children with autism.

On April 23, Butchikas contributed another $40,000 to ECAP, bringing the 12-year total of his foundation's donations to $330,000. In addition, he pledged $15,000 in support of the realization of an ECAP clinic on campus.

"This is good for autistic children, good for FSU students and it's good for Florida State University," Butchikas, addressing a press conference, said about ECAP and the clinic plans.

And, arguably, good for the world.

"That's been the key," Shaw says about FSU-PC's rebound from the brink. "Campus-community partnerships. At the level of a branch campus, they are indispensible. They create value that no one should want to eliminate."

Perhaps never again.

"I'm so proud of the way our community has embraced the local campus of FSU," Dodd enthuses. "So many people were willing to stand up and be counted. It was too much to ignore."

Community leaders helped preserve FSU-PC's future

In mid-2009, Florida State University President T.K. Wetherell assembled a Blue Ribbon Committee that he charged with creating a five-year vision for the Panama City branch campus of FSU. In so doing, the committee authored 31 recommendations and 119 action items related to four goals:

  1. Increase enrollment to 1,400 students by 2012.
  2. Strengthen the working relationship between FSU's main campus and FSU-PC.
  3. Increase and enhance partnership opportunities with Gulf Coast State College and Bay District Schools.
  4. Seek separate Southern Association of Colleges and Schools accreditation.

The committee was co-chaired by Allan Bense, a former speaker of the Florida House of Representatives, and Lisa Walters, an attorney and community activist. Today, Bense serves as a member of the Florida State University Board of Trustees and Walters has been nominated for a seat on the FSU Development Board.

Other members of the Blue Ribbon Committee and the positions they held at the time of the committee's deliberations were:

  • Robert Bradley, VP/Planning and Programs, FSU
  • Scott Clemons, mayor, City of Panama City
  • Rep. Marti Coley, Florida House District 7
  • Ray Dubuque, area director, AT&T Florida
  • Neal Dunn, M.D., Panama City Urology Center
  • Earl Durden, chairman and CEO, Durden Enterprises II, Inc.*
  • Wm. Britton Greene, president and CEO, The St. Joe Company
  • Philip Griffitts, Jr., owner, Sugar Sands Beach Resort
  • Karen Hanes, publisher, Panama City News Herald
  • William Husfelt, superintendent, Bay District Schools
  • Chuck Isler, attorney, Isler, Sombathy & Sombathy, P.A.
  • Jim Kerley, president, Gulf Coast State College
  • Glen McDonald, vice president, Applied Research Associates
  • Sean McNeil, P.E., McNeil Carroll Engineering
  • Mike Nelson, Bay County Commissioner
  • Dan Nix, Director/Finance and Administration, FSU-PC
  • Rep. Jimmy Patronis, Florida House District 6
  • Ken Shaw, dean, FSU-PC
  • Jerry Smithwick, Florida chief of staff for U.S. Rep. Allen Boyd
  • Jerry Sowell, C.P.A., Segers, Sowell, Stewart, Johnson and Brill, P.A.
  • Susan Story, president and CEO, Gulf Power
  • Delbert Sumney, technical director, Naval Surface Warfare Center
  • Janet Watermeier, director, Bay County Economic Development Alliance

* Mr. Durden died April 25, 2010

Categories: Panama City, Tallahassee