Q&A: Ken Atwater, HCC, Tampa

Hillsborough Community College hosts an inauguration ceremony for new President Ken Atwater on Wednesday (March 16) at the downtown Tampa Hyatt Regency.

Atwater, a transplant from Phoenix, will officially become the seventh president of one of the Tampa Bay region's best-known educational institutions. HCC serves more than 47,000 students on five campuses and in three centers.

Atwater sat down with 83 Degrees to share his goals and aspirations, as well as to talk a bit about himself and what brought him to HCC.

83D: Now that you've been here in Tampa for about eight months, how would you assess the experience overall?

KA: Outstanding. Better than I ever imagined. From an institutional  perspective, I give all praise to Dr. (Gwendolyn) Stephenson. She was a great predecessor who left a strong academic legacy in a strong community.

83D: Any surprises, pleasant or otherwise?

KA: I expected the college to be strong, but I had not expected the community respect to be what it is. That runs the whole gamut, from Plant City to Ruskin to Tampa. The message is the same: ''We love HCC.'' Even one person who complained to me about the financial aid process, at the end of the story, he said, "HCC is a great place.''

83D: What percentage of time, say in a week, do you spend in the classroom vs. administrative duties vs. community activities?

KA: I spend a lot of time with student learning, both inside and outside the classroom. Maybe 55 to 60 percent, I'm focused on learning about the institution. I'm at events, meeting with faculty and staff, and student leaders. I spend maybe another 30 percent meeting community people, meeting with chambers, CEO councils, the United Way, the Rotary. I'm averaging 75 to 80 hours a week. I'm always representing HCC. Yesterday (Sunday), I met with the CEO of Suncoast Schools and Joe Madden with the Rays. 

83D: Do you plan to take HCC in a new direction?

KA: Yes; a lot of our students complete general education requirements and transfer to another school. We're encouraging people to complete their degrees here. There are lots of reasons to do so. One: Having a two-year degree results in 36 percent more in annual income. Two: A two-year degree makes it easier for people to transfer to another institution. Our goals tie in with several national factors and local initiatives. For instance, we're working on a pathway agreement with USF to make it easier to transfer. So we're pushing the completion agenda.

83D: How do you teach the importance of relationships?

KA: I always encourage students to get connected to the institution. Get connected with somebody -- an adviser, a teacher, someone. I push that all the time. I also encourage them by saying I want to see them at graduation. That's especially important for targeted groups of high-risk students. College engagements or relationships mean a much greater likelihood of graduation and success.

83D: What books have influenced you the most?

KA: "Good to Great'' by Jim Collins. "A Leader's Legacy'' by James Kouzes and Barry Posner.

83D: What is your vision for taking HCC from good to great?

KA: There are three pillars that I'll talk about in my inauguration speech. Innovation, collaborative community partnerships and improving the student experience.

83D: Favorite movie?

KA: The Taking of Pelham 123 with Denzel Washington and John Travolta.

83D: Why?

KA: I like action and good stories, especially a good subplot to a good plot. In Pelham 123, it's about hijacking a train but the underlying story is about trying to manipulate Wall Street.
83D: Are you a TV watcher?

KA: I'm a sports and news fan. Basketball, football, baseball. Hockey too.

83D: Mac or PC?

KA: Both. I'm a gadget guy. Love technology. I have an iPad, an iPhone and a PC. I recently lost my mother, so I'm buying my father a laptop so we can teach him how to e-mail. My brother's 12-year-old grandson is trying to tutor him.

83D: What about music? Favorite genre or performer?

KA: I like jazz. I love good voices. I don't care if it's opera, country or R&B. I also love plays. I went to see Dreamgirls and have tickets to Jersey Boys.

83D: Any hobbies?

KA: I'm an avid golfer.

83D: Favorite course?

KA: Pebble Beach. Any of the Carolina courses.

83D: Best score?
KA: 66. I've broken 70 eight or nine times.

83D: If you could give high school students just one piece of advice about looking at colleges, what would it be?

KA: Actually, there are two things. First, understand that you need to go to college. Second, the sooner you make a decision on a career, the better off you'll be. Get started early in the right direction. Find the institution that is the best fit for your learning style. Everyone can't go to UF and be successful.

83D: Why pick HCC?

KA: You have a greater chance of being successful here. We focus on teaching and learning. You are usually being taught by a person with a master's degree or above, not by someone working on a degree as a teaching assistant. You get individual attention in an engaging environment.

83D: Anything else you'd like to convey to 83 Degrees readers?

KA: We'll announce an endowment fund at the inauguration. The goal is to raise $5 million to support it.

Diane Egner, 83 Degrees publisher and managing editor, shares insights from thought leaders by conducting interviews and editing their answers for succinctness. Comments? Contact 83 Degrees.

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Diane Egner is the publisher and managing editor at 83 Degrees Media in the Tampa Bay region of Florida. 
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