Branching Out

By Hannah Wallace March 31, 2004

An old friend remembers seeing Dr. Laurey T. Stryker, then a Hillsborough Community College political science professor, expertly chair an education committee meeting for the Hillsborough League of Women Voters at her Tampa home in 1971 while cuddling her firstborn baby daughter.

"She had amazing multi-skills," marvels Davin, a former Hillsborough County Commissioner and now assistant to the Tampa mayor.

Three decades later, the multi-tasking, no-nonsense native Long Islander is still passionate about education and the younger generation. She's leading the University of South Florida Sarasota-Manatee through unprecedented academic and student growth. Her goal? To transform a one-time stepchild of a massive, multi-site university into a distinctive regional campus and community asset. USF president Judy Genshaft says Stryker-a veteran of business and government in Tallahassee and Tampa and her former vice president in charge of budgets and technology-is succeeding: "USF Sarasota-Manatee has higher visibility, enrollments and graduation rates."

It's not easy to be the CEO of a branch campus, especially a branch of the second-largest public university in the Southeast. (USF, headquartered in Tampa and with branches in St. Petersburg, Lakeland and Sarasota, has 41,000 students.) They're often seen as outposts, shortchanged when it comes to clout and money. But Stryker, the CEO and vice president of this commuter campus near the Sarasota-Manatee county line on U.S. 41, is shaking things up with her single-minded determination to expand and improve-sometimes ruffling feathers in the process. Since stepping into the executive suite in late 2000, she's installed green signs along Main Street in downtown Sarasota. Each bears the USF logo exclaiming, "Yes, We Are a University Town."

During her short tenure Stryker has added degree programs, students and faculty. Enrollment peaked at 3,000 this spring, a 50-percent increase since her arrival. She hopes to increase enrollment to 5,000 by 2007. That's made Sarasota-Manatee the fastest growing of USF's three regional campuses. She's recently expanded to South Sarasota, where classes for four degree programs began last January. "They're very efficient," North Port economic development director Bob Tunis says about how quickly Stryker & Co. put an expansion plan into effect at the Manatee Community College campus there. "She's just sunk her teeth into a number of rather difficult projects. We're already seeing results."

Stryker has left the isolation of the academic arena, reaching out to businesses in both counties, tailoring academic programs to their needs and making USF new allies as she preaches the gospel of university as economic engine. "She's lit a spark and is connecting beautifully to the community," says Debra Jacobs, president of Sarasota's William G. and Marie Selby Foundation. "When we recruit faculty and staff," Stryker says, "we tell them, 'You'll not only be teaching classes or doing financial reports, but you'll also need that foot in the community.' The people we've recruited value that interaction."

And just this year Stryker accepted a second prominent role as chairwoman of Sarasota County's economic development efforts. It's one she's passionate about.

"The biggest challenge of economic development," Stryker says, "is taking advantage of a change from large corporate organizations to an economy more heavily focused on smaller companies-$5- to $20-million companies, companies encouraging innovation-and having the workforce here to match up with those needs. We want more opportunity for our children to stay here, to be part of this community."

Stryker intends for USF S-M to turn out IT whizzes and computer-conscious nurses of tomorrow. USF S-M is an upper-division campus, serving only college juniors, seniors and graduate students. The average age of students is 29, with 30 percent enrolled in graduate programs. Many have full-time jobs and families. These students used to travel to the main campus in Tampa or transfer to other universities for upper-division courses once they received an associate's degree. The growth of USF S-M allows them to stay closer to home.

In Tampa and Tallahassee, Strkyer earned a reputation as a seasoned pro with administrative, financial and political expertise. A long-time friend of U.S. Senate candidate Betty Castor, whom she met back in her League of Women Voter days, she was Castor's assistant commissioner of education after Castor was elected Florida's education commissioner in 1986. In 1995, when Castor had become USF president, she put Stryker in charge of budgets and technology, a post Stryker held until Genshaft offered her the Sarasota-Manatee job. Castor says Stryker "understands the benefit of the university to the community."

Stryker seems in a hurry to reach her goals and believes the community is, too-especially to see a brand-new campus on the Crosley estate just north of New College of Florida on the bay side of U.S. 41. "I hear over and over again, 'How fast can we get there?'" says Stryker.

The Crosley expansion plan, which university officials hope to accomplish by persuading the current Legislature to allocate construction money for a three-story classroom and office building in two consecutive budget years, is her priority. It ran into a roadblock when last year's Legislature failed to budget the $22.5 million allocation. "It was a blow," Stryker says. "I was very disappointed."

The Crosley expansion has also been her biggest public relations challenge. She's angered nearby Uplands residents for her unswerving allegiance to the location, which dates back to a 1995 master plan. The conflict-which involves suspicions that USF will quickly outgrow the Crosley location, invade the neighborhood, and threaten gopher tortoise habitats-has received extensive media coverage. State Sen. Michael Bennett is one official who's suggested site alternatives. He says long-range enrollment projections suggest more classroom space will be necessary than can be accommodated at Crosley. "I would like to see the Sarasota community and USF be a little more attuned to the needs and desires of the neighborhood in which they want to expand," Bennett says. When he proposed seeking alternative locations, Bennett says campus board members informed him, "Laurey really wants that land."

Predictably, the Crosley plan has also heightened tensions between USF S-M and New College of Florida, especially after the 650-student liberal arts school was granted its independence from USF in 2001 to become the state's 11th public institution. (Once private, New College was rescued from financial extinction in 1975 when the state of Florida put it under the wing of USF and renamed it New College of USF. Since that time, USF and New College have shared the campus.) While a quarter-century or so of living together hadn't exactly made for cozy bedfellows, the institutions' leaders long made a go of the awkward arrangement. But once the state severed the formal relationship, there was what New College president Dr. Gordon "Mike" Michalson characterizes as "initial friction generated by anxiety." Then, too, he adds, "Dr. Stryker has a long background in the knock-down, drag-out arena of Tallahassee. Some of that may not have translated perfectly to a new setting in a small city." Since both he and Stryker were intent on establishing distinct identities in Sarasota and Manatee, "that may have made us more aggressive than we needed to be."

Michalson emphasizes that conflicts have been resolved, primarily by the leaders signing a "footprint" agreement to guide the continued sharing of some campus facilities.

Stryker mirrors his comments. "There were a lot of issues the first year," she recalls. "We accomplished a huge amount quickly. Our parents forced our divorce but didn't tell us how to divide the assets. (They) said to us 'grow' and said to New College, 'Develop a state university.'"

Manatee businessman Jan E. Smith, chairman of USF Sarasota-Manatee's campus board, sees attributes instead of shortcomings in Stryker's direct executive style. "That she is forceful, dynamic and impatient is a style to getting things done," he says. "She gets results. That's the key."

Among those results are new programs for executives to earn MBAs, master's degrees for law-enforcement officers and social workers, and classes for teachers' aides who want to become classroom teachers. Also in place is an educational leadership program to turn teachers into principals and assistant principals.

Another one of Stryker's accomplishments is the opening last fall of the new School of Hotel and Restaurant Management, with top-flight professors lured from other respected schools of the specialty. "I have never built a program where I had so much consistent, sustained community support," says Dr. Peter L. French, the campus's dean of academic affairs.

Says one of those supporters, former Hyatt Sarasota manager Steve Mehas: "It's one of the most exciting things we could hope for -a training ground in our own backyard producing an educated work force. My hope is they won't venture too far from here when they graduate."

And Stryker isn't finished. French is in early discussions with Mote Marine Laboratory about creating a veterinary technician program concentrating on marine mammals and is pursuing a concept for a financial training center aimed at bank employees. A Public Policy and Leadership Institute is expected to open this fall.

Also under consideration is a mass communications program focused on print journalism, possibly emphasizing editing. Such a specialized shaping, French says, would mirror the manner in which USF fine-tuned its psychology program to focus it on legal psychology and retooled its information systems courses to make them more consistent with what businesses want.

As usual, Stryker remains clear about what it takes to get the job done. "This is a big job. It was like turning a big ship around," she says. "The idea of the campus growing was a significant change. That's what Judy Genshaft asked me to do, and that's why I took the job."

Jill Maunder is a free-lance writer and public relations consultant who lives in St. Petersburg. She can be reached at [email protected]

The Scores on USF Sarasota-Manatee

Year established in Sarasota-Manatee: 1965

Number of students: 3,000 annually

Percentage of students who are undergrads: 70

Percentage of students who are fulltime: 46

Percentage of students who transfer from Manatee Community College: 72

Number of alumni: 9,000

Percentage of USF S-M graduates who remain in Sarasota and Manatee: 96 percent

Number of programs: 34 full-degree programs

Five most popular programs: education, accounting, business, social work, information systems

The Crosley Controversy

USF Sarasota-Manatee is pinning its hopes for the next phase of its growth on a $22.5-million expansion plan that delights its supporters but disappoints residents of the small Uplands neighborhood that's adjacent to the current campus and the 28.5-acre expansion tract. Some residents fear their houses could be condemned and taken by USF for a future phase of expansion. The Legislature gave the university the power of eminent domain about the same time that USF unveiled its plan.

How the standoff will be resolved is in the hands of the state in two respects. First, this spring, the governor and cabinet sitting as the "administration commission" will review the report of the Department of Community Affairs (DCA). While the DCA report disagrees with the neighbors' contention that another location would better suit USF's needs, it urges the university to get more information about how the expansion would impact natural resources and to use that data in planning its site.

Then the legislature must approve capital funds for the project-and such funds will probably again be tight. Still, the Crosley expansion plan is one of the university's top two capital construction priorities, USF President Judy Genshaft says.

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