Interview: Wendy Libby

Brooklyn native Wendy Libby was the first woman president
of Florida’s prestigious Stetson University.

By Palmer Hasty

In 2008 Brooklyn native Dr. Wendy Libby was comfortable in her job as President of Stephens College, the second oldest woman’s institute in America.  Dr. Libby had spent 5 years both financially and academically transforming the college into a success story at a time when the college had been running a deficit and needed a rescue.

At the same time, Stetson University in Florida had become financially stable under retiring President Dr. Douglas Lee, but, as Lee himself said, Stetson needed someone like Libby to take the university to its next level of growth. Monique Forte, a professor of management in Stetson’s School of Business, agreed with Lee, adding: “She’s proven her ability to implement and execute a vision.”

Although Libby at first was not seeking the Presidency at Stetson, she knew it was a good school and she was impressed with the Stetson traditions based on faith and values, calling them a “rudder in this complicated world.”

Stetson courted Libby, and what finally persuaded her to take the position were the people.  As she said she told a Stetson student radio program; “I got here and met students and alumni, and I saw how much love they had for Stetson.  It made me take a closer look, and every closer look made it clear to me, this was a place I would want to be.”

Brooklyn Background

In our interview last week Dr. Libby talked about her childhood in Brooklyn.She was born in Brooklyn in 1951 and lived with her family at 2828 Kings Highway, where both her parents had lived for 35 years.  Her father was born in the Bronx while her mother was a Brooklynite all her life until she passed away in 1974.  Libby lived in Brooklyn until she left home for college in 1968.

A good education for Libby and her older brother was always a primary concern for her parents. 
She explained:  “School was my whole life when I was young.  My father worked all the time, my mother ran the house: And my job?” Libby laughed; “My job was to earn A’s in school.”

Libby attended James Madison High School on Bedford Avenue just a few blocks away from her home. At the time James Madison was considered one of the best public schools in the borough, where, she said; “I was in a classroom with other bright students and high achievers. James Madison was a great academic school.”

She recalled as a teenager one of her fondest memories that she still considers important, was taking the subway with a girlfriend into Manhattan to experience the Broadway theatre. “It was important to me because it kindled my lifetime love of theatre.  As a teen it gave me the opportunity to broaden my perspective, and gain independence by traveling with a friend to Manhattan, going to a fine restaurant for lunch, and learning how to navigate the city.”

Libby also remembered the more typical experiences as a teenager in that area of Brooklyn when Kings Highway was a thriving retail Mecca, just before Malls started being built.  “I remember my friends and I would walk up and down Kings Highway, from Ocean Avenue to Coney Island Avenue, where all the retail stores were.  No one had a driver’s license or a car back then, so we walked everywhere.”

A Career of Building with Vision & Change

After leaving Brooklyn for college, Libby earned three degrees; in 1972 a Bachelor’s from Cornell University in Biology, in 1977 an MBA in Finance from Cornell, and in 1994 a PhD. in Education Administration from the University of Connecticut.  During the interview with the Stetson student radio program (mentioned above), Libby said: “It’s an unusual background.  It’s the mark of someone who keeps moving and changing.”

I commented that her education apparently gave her a good foundation to train herself to think like a CEO, and she agreed.  Then with some self-mockery in her voice she said:  “Yes, I’m currently the CEO of a 140 million dollar business with 4 locations serving 4,000 students.” (She’s referring to Stetson University’s 4 campus locations in Florida: DeLand, Celebration, Gulfport, and Tampa.)

After being unanimously elected by the Stetson Board of Trustees in 2008, the chairman of the board said of Libby: “She has an impressive record of leading with a compelling vision centered on fiscal responsibility and strategic planning.”
That statement hits the nail on the head.  The Stetson Board of Trustees was right; Libby was prepared to take the helm at Stetson.

Prior to accepting Stetson’s job offer, Libby had served as Chief Financial Officer and VP of Business Affairs at Furman College for 8 years (1995-2003) where she was instrumental in keeping the school financially fit, and developing that school’s first campus master plan since the 1950s.
When news spread that Libby had taken the job at Stetson, her former boss at Furman, Dr. David Shi, said:  “Wendy is experienced and wise beyond her years…She will provide great leadership and vision for Stetson.”
When she left Furman in 2003 she took the reigns at Stephens College, the nation’s second oldest women’s institution, where she literally orchestrated a complete turnaround of the college.
Stephens College was in serious financial trouble. Libby guided the school through a strategic planning initiative and reduced a multi-million dollar deficit.  She jumpstarted fundraising campaigns and on the academic side under Libby undergraduate enrollment increased by 60% while the Continuing Studies division saw a 96% increase.  When Stetson knocked on her door, those two fundraising campaigns at Stephens College alone had generated $22 million.
Libby had become a University Board of Trustee’s dream come true.
On her departure from Stephens College, the Board of Trustees reported: “Wendy has led the dramatic turnaround at Stephens…with the College’s five-year strategic plan; she reinvigorated academic programs and set the nation abuzz about Stephens again.”  The Board of Trustees Chairman George Ann Harding said: “Wendy is leaving us strong and ready for the future.”
That kind of track record gives real meaning to her statement on accepting the President’s job at Stetson.  “I share the university’s commitment to academic excellence and transformation. I look forward to leading Stetson into a new era of educating students to lead great lives.”

Transforming Stetson

Since taking the helm at Stetson four years ago Libby continues to transform the University today.  Stetson now has a woman’s lacrosse team, which had their first competitive season this past spring.  Stetson also reinstated a football program that will begin its first competitive season this fall.
When asked in a radio interview about bringing football to Stetson, Libby demurely smiled and replied; “Although I never aspired to bring football back to Stetson, I mean, it wasn’t my primary aim, but still, it was a deliberate decision. I once jokingly told someone that I want to be remembered for reinforcing academic excellence, and instead I’m going to be remembered for football.”
Libby believes the addition of sports teams will help diversify the student population and make for a more vibrant campus.  She said that one of her goals at Stetson was to “modernize the university while keeping the values and traditions intact”.  She must be doing something right.  The undergraduate population at Stetson when she took over in 2009 was 2,100, and last fall it had increased to 2,500.
She said another one of her goals would be to “bring in enough faculty so the character of the education doesn’t change,” and true to her plan, Stetson is about the hire 25 new faculty members this coming fall.
Libby considers one of her more important achievements so far at Stetson to be in the academic arena.  With four campuses in four different cities, she refined the thinking; “Its not that we are one university, it’s that we are one Stetson” she said.
When I asked her about her guidelines that help her so effectively move a university like Stetson forward, she said:  “Well, you create a strategic plan focused on innovation so you can move from success to significance.  And you set goals.  My goals for Stetson have been to articulate her distinctiveness, find the best students for the university, lead with academic excellence, keep life-long relationships with alumni, take care of assets, and make the university a great place to work.”

Images of Dr. Libby and campus: Courtesy of Stetson University.