Make Way

Photography by William S. Speer By Susan Burns March 31, 2009

 It didn’t take long for Lars Hafner, the new president of Manatee Community College, to create a stir when he took over last July.

Only weeks after starting his new position, Hafner boldly announced that MCC—which had offered only two-year A.A. degrees in its 52-year history—would now be venturing into the arena of four-year degrees, starting with a B.S. in nursing.

But then Hafner, just about to turn 48 and just the fifth president in the college’s history, has an energy level and drive that matches his 6-foot, 5-inch frame. Under his leadership, MCC may become a new type of institution, a hybrid that offers A.A. degrees and four-year baccalaureate degrees and will be classified under a relatively new designation: a Florida state college. Under this new banner, MCC would change its name (although no new name has been discussed yet) and would offer a menu of four-year degrees that could change the educational landscape in the two-county region.

This move is not without controversy. One state education professor has referred to this transition as the “civil war of our field,” since it expands the traditional role of the community college—an A.A. degree-granting institution with open enrollment—and puts it squarely on the turf of other four-year colleges and universities. At press time, MCC had not yet been approved by the state to offer the B.S. in nursing, but all signs pointed to a favorable vote. 

Despite the boldness of this action, Hafner, who earns $210,000 as MCC president, does not come across as a man who likes to cause a commotion. Measured and thoughtful in his conversation, he has an administrator’s tendency to speak about bureaucratic initiatives and recite lists. He rarely refers to himself in the first person; everything is “we” and “us.” As his friends say, he is a workhorse, not a show horse.

And he’ll need that work ethic. In addition to moving MCC to a four-year college, he faces other challenges. Michael Brawer, the executive director of the Florida Association of Community Colleges, says student enrollment statewide mushroomed by 100,000 in the last year or so, and more are expected to enroll in community colleges in this weak economy. MCC saw a record enrollment of 11,000 this spring. All types of students attend community colleges now, from those who need remedial help, to recent high school grads with 3.5 GPAs who just missed the cut into one of Florida’s increasingly competitive four-year universities, to mature students who have been laid off and need to train for a new career.

And this is happening just as budgets are being slashed. In fact, Hafner had to cut $2.4 million from his $61 million budget two weeks after he started, and he knows he’ll face another cut of perhaps 6 percent to 8 percent in the 2009-10 budget cycle. These budget cuts are coming at a time when local business and government leaders are desperately searching for new ways to diversify the economy away from real estate and construction and provide new jobs. Community colleges, which are primarily designed to serve as economic engines for their regions, are facing pressure to respond—and quickly.

Hafner seems up for the challenge. Few community college presidents are as familiar or have played as many roles at a community college as he has. He was a community college student who excelled in athletics, academics and student government. He spent 23 years as, first, a faculty member at St. Petersburg Community College and finally as one of its top administrators as well as a politician with lots of experience with budgets and tight times.

“I have been in the community college arena for 30 years and part of my responsibility is to work with the 1,200 community college presidents in the nation,” says Rod Risley, the executive director of the national Phi Theta Kappa, the honor society of community colleges, which has given Hafner many of its top national awards for the past 15 years. “Lars brings to the table a complement of skills of few that I have seen in my career.”

So far, Hafner has balanced his budget by focusing on efficiency rather than cutting positions. Classrooms are at 93 percent capacity (they were below 80 percent previously); traveling costs between the college’s three campuses (in Bradenton, Lakewood Ranch and Venice) have been reduced by starting remote live meetings; printing and paper costs have been slashed by using all-electronic communication for board meetings, and course schedules have gone completely online. It’s meant that, for now, faculty members still have their jobs, and Hafner still has the budget to hire 13 new and replacement faculty for next academic year.

If the business community wants to know what to expect from Hafner, then his own academic and professional life provide the blueprint.

Hafner grew up in St. Petersburg, the youngest son of a Congregationalist minister. Serving the community was a strong undercurrent in his family’s life, and Hafner began accompanying his mother, who delivered food and clothing to poor families, long before he could drive. He even toyed with the idea of going into the ministry when he was young.

Hafner attended St. Petersburg Junior College (now St. Petersburg College) and became captain of the basketball team, student government senator and immediately joined the community college’s honor society, Phi Theta Kappa. He graduated with an A.A. in 1981. He received his B.A. in communications in 1983 from State University of New York at Buffalo, where he was also the captain of the basketball team, and moved onto graduate school at the University of Maryland to pursue a master’s in organizational and political communication with the serious thought that while the ministry might not be the right fit, politics—or government service—could be. “I took the values and said, ‘How can I model that in a bigger light?’” he remembers.

While studying full time at the University of Maryland, he kept up an exhaustive schedule, teaching a class in communications to undergraduates, traveling every week to D.C. to work for U.S. Sen. Paula Hawkins and hopping on a plane every Thursday to teach a class at St. Petersburg Junior College on Friday and Saturday. He was 23 years old.

When a faculty position in speech and communications opened up at St. Petersburg College, Hafner, barely 25 and with his master’s degree in hand, joined as one of the college’s youngest faculty members. That was in 1985. Two years later, he ran for the state legislature as a Democrat and won (the youngest legislator elected that year), subsequently serving for 12 years while teaching full time at St. Petersburg College and eventually becoming a vice president and provost.

As a state representative, Hafner quickly moved into leadership, serving as chair of the appropriations committee, the state House Democratic Caucus, the finance and programs subcommittee of the higher education committee and the Tampa Bay Democratic Leadership Council.

“He was a leader in the Democratic Party,” remembers former state Sen. Lisa Carlton, who says Hafner was welcoming to her even when she was a Republican freshman member and at the very bottom of the legislature’s strict pecking order. “I have to tell you that there are a few people I have tried to model myself after. One is John McKay [a former Florida Senate president from Manatee County], and Lars Hafner is another one. He was an example of someone who stood out, who believed in working with both parties. That earned him respect. Anyone who worked with him would tell you the same thing.”

Because of term limits, Hafner retired from the state legislature in 2000. Even as late as 2007, Hafner’s name was still strong among state Democrats, and he was mentioned as a possible candidate for Congress in Florida’s 10th District against Republican Congressman Bill Young. But as much as Hafner says he “loves politics,” he says he has no plans to ever enter that world again.

Risley, of Phi Theta Kappa, isn’t surprised by the decision. Hafner is more driven by service than power, and leading a community college is similar to being a missionary, he says. “Community colleges provide a way out for people,” he explains. “It’s a hand up to help people have a better quality of life that they couldn’t have on their own. For so many community college graduates who understand that, they develop such an appreciation and value for what had happened in their lives. Doors opened to them that they never believed possible.” Hafner, he says, is passionate about that experience.

“I’ve never met anyone who’s as passionate about community colleges,” says state Sen. Charlie Justice, who once was a student of Hafner’s and his campaign manager in 1994.

There’s no doubt that Hafner’s legislative prowess will serve Manatee Community College well.  “It allows us to have a little jump on what’s going on prior to it happening,” he concedes. That’s why, he says, he cut $2.4 million from the budget as soon as he started. “We knew what was coming,” he says. “Others around the state did not plan. We hit our number head on. That kind of experience in understanding the appropriations process and the timing of how that goes on, those are all benefits.”

And being part of the legislative fraternity has made him understand how important it is to make his own local politicians look good. When he decided to go for a four-year nursing degree, he understood the benefits educationally—and politically. Yes, there was the small row over the proposal in February started by USF Sarasota-Manatee CEO Arthur Guilford, who understandably might feel that MCC’s foray into four-year degrees could possibly affect his institution (after all, it’s cheaper to get a B.S. at a community college than a university). But Hafner feels certain the proposal will be approved and that he will begin to offer a B.S. in nursing in the fall of 2010. All eight regional hospitals are supporting the move, he says.

“There’s not a lot of great news to bring home from Tallahassee these days,” Hafner says. “But if you can bring home the idea that MCC is moving forward with four-year degrees to meet workforce needs, that’s a win for the legislative delegation because it’s a win for our community. If you can tie those two things together, everyone’s going be a lot more responsive and happy.”

Already, Hafner has signaled to the Board of Education that he is interested in going beyond the B.S. in nursing to include a B.S. in math and science education to teach middle and high school students, and a B.S. in applied science that would include programs in environmental sciences, exercise science and nutrition, fire science, health care management, nonprofit leadership and management, radiologic sciences and technology management.

Looking ahead, Hafner predicts that MCC will enroll 15,000 students in three to five years, and he sees another 10,000 in just seven to 10 more years. And Hafner says, for now, he has no intention of leaving the community college experience that gave him so much. Being president of MCC is his dream job, he asserts. “I’m where I want to be. This is the right calling.”  

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