ST. PETERSBURG, FL (July 1, 2020) — Damián J. Fernández, Ph.D., began his duties as the fifth president of Eckerd College today with a message to trustees, faculty, staff, students and alumni about how he will approach his time at the helm.
“As the fifth president of the College, I recommit to our mission and values. They will point us in the right direction as we address challenges from which we are not immune,” Fernández wrote. “Linked together by a shared sense of purpose, we—students, trustees, alumni, faculty, staff, and friends of the College—will act in ways that advance our vision for the College—a vision of the liberal arts and sciences as catalysts to empower students to do good.”
Fernández, 62, a Cuban immigrant who grew up in Puerto Rico, joins the Eckerd community with more than 30 years of higher education experience in the classroom and administration. His most recent position was chancellor of The Pennsylvania State University–Abington College. Since 2016, Fernández was instrumental in crafting the school’s strategic plan, expanding the faculty, launching three new degree programs and opening the school’s first residence hall.
Months before his official start at Eckerd, Fernández began collaborating with President Emeritus Donald R. Eastman III, executive staff and trustees to address the challenges brought on by a pandemic and public health crisis that shuttered campuses across the country and forced educators to think differently about how they deliver information. Those talks and plans became the Eckerd Together initiative, which strives to deliver the high-impact in-person experience Eckerd College is known for while adjusting to the realities of communal living during the pandemic.
The new president also announced that he will highlight interdisciplinary initiatives, to address the complex issues of our times, and will prioritize diversity, inclusion and belonging at Eckerd, as a nod to his belief that providing marginalized groups access to education is the best way to build personal and professional attainment that will ultimately strengthen the nation. Considered a thought leader on the importance of diversity in higher education, Fernández was quoted by Higher Education Today in February about his commitment to advancing equity. “If you want to be an inclusive campus, you must lead inclusively. That means bringing students in, putting resources on the table, building the scaffolding necessary and hiring faculty of color. It can be done, but it requires presidents to reengineer part of the institution,” he said.
Beginning in July, Eckerd trustees, faculty, staff, students and alumni volunteer groups will receive surveys aimed at deciphering the priorities of the community and ideas of advancing the institution. Fernández will begin listening sessions with groups on-campus during the Fall Semester with plans to use all the feedback to create a strategic plan for the College.
“Active engagement with your college is what inspires and generates institutional growth,” he implored his new community. “Eckerd deserves your time and talent.”