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Change Maker

Dec 1, 2016
by Brian Thompson, '95, Photo by Scott Smith, '04

After 15 years at the helm, Dr. Abare sets retirement for next year

Flagler College wasn’t much to look at when William T. Abare Jr. arrived on campus to interview for an admissions director position 45 years ago.

The fledgling school was only three years old, had just gone through a major restructuring that saw the installation of then-President William L. Proctor and the campus was confined to the musty, dark former Hotel Ponce de Leon, a shell of its former opulent self and in desperate need of maintenance and renovation.  

“I came down here and what I saw when I got here was the hotel and Markland House,” he said. “That was it. There was nothing else. Not another building.”

Abare was ready to turn down the position when a former boss and mentor from Mercer University said something that changed his mind: “Abare, are you always going to swim in the safe water?”

“After all these years, that question still rings in my ears,” Abare said. “It was kind of challenging my intestinal fortitude, challenging my abilities, challenging my level of commitment. So, I decided to go ahead and take it. It was a total leap of faith.”

It made an impact on the young Abare, and it set in motion his 45-year career with Flagler, including the last 15 as president in which he has led it through tremendous growth and change. That long run will come to a close in June now that Abare has announced he plans to retire as president, although he will stay on in a special advisory capacity after taking a sabbatical.

With the college’s 50th anniversary approaching in 2018, Abare decided the time was right to let a new leader take over.

“The more I thought about it, I realized there was never going to be a perfect time,” he said. “There will always be another initiative to begin, another program to get underway, another project to start and finish, another fundraising effort to mount. There isn’t a perfect time. I just felt like this was the right time.”

The college’s Board of Trustees is conducting a national search for a new president, who will be only the fourth in the history of the college. A search firm was hired and a Presidential Selection Committee selected two finalists in early November.*  

When Abare steps down from the position next June, he will turn over a college that is ranked second in the south for regional colleges in U.S. News and World Report’s annual rankings, has a strong enrollment and has expanded its footprint with a new $23 million residential and parking facility now under construction on the western edge of the campus.

Through his 15 years as president, Abare has left his mark on the college through those three areas — healthy enrollment, continued excellence in academics and a transformed campus that saw more than 10 major building projects under his leadership.     

“Dr. Abare has been a great leader and has done an extraordinary job as the president of Flagler College for the past 15 years, and for 30 years before that,” said Frank D. Upchurch III, chairman of the Flagler College Board of Trustees. “We are deeply grateful for all that Bill and his wife, Susan, have done for the college, and we look forward to celebrating the final year of his presidency with them in suitable fashion.”

Transforming the college

Under Dr. Abare’s leadership, the college’s enrollment increased from approximately 2,000 students in 2001 to over 3,000 in 2015, including the satellite campus at Tallahassee Community College and the Public Administration Program in St. Augustine. The number of full-time faculty nearly doubled from 62 to 112, and the number of alumni has increased from 6,000 in 2001 to more than 16,000, an increase of 167 percent.

But he might be best remembered for how the campus grew and expanded from a small blueprint centered on Ponce Hall to one with additional residential, academic and student-focused facilities. He has overseen numerous building projects on campus, including four residence halls (Cedar Hall and the conversion of three FEC Railway Buildings), the Ringhaver Student Center, the Molly Wiley Art Building, Pollard Hall for academics, Hanke Hall for Admissions and Financial Aid, major expansion and modernization projects for Flagler College Athletics, the restoration of the Solarium and a multi-million dollar restoration of the Ponce’s exterior.

During Abare’s presidency, the college invested more than $80 million in major capital improvements to the campus.

On the academic side, new majors were added in Art History, Coastal Environmental Science, Public History, Criminology, Hospitality and Tourism Management, and Finance. Just this fall, Flagler launched its first master’s degree program in Deaf Education.

Abare made the decision to move the college’s athletic affiliation from the NAIA to the NCAA in 2006, and guided the application for membership and transition to the NCAA Division II in 2008. He also led the college in joining the Peach Belt Conference in 2009.

His dedication to preservation of the Ponce and other historic properties on
campus won him the Evelyn Fortune Bartlett Award from the Florida Trust for
Historic Preservation.

“The College is in great shape,” he said. “When I hand the baton to the next president, he or she is stepping into a great job, because the college is doing incredibly well. The future for Flagler is very bright.”

A leap of faith

In 45 years with the college, Abare has seen tremendous change. When he first visited Flagler, he found a college that looked nothing like the environments he had worked in at Mercer University and West Georgia College. Only 3 years old, Flagler had been reorganized under a young President Proctor, and enrollment was struggling. The Ponce, today a National Historic Landmark and once a luxury hotel that had hosted U.S. presidents, was in need of major renovation.  

But despite Abare’s reservations, it was his former admissions director at Mercer, Johnny Mitchell, who encouraged him to take a chance on Flagler.

“He said, ‘There are very few people in the world that have the opportunity to do something that would really make a difference. I really think you could get the job done,’” Abare remembered about the conversation. “It was sort of a challenge. Here’s something that’s going to be difficult. That will certainly test you in every way possible.”

But it wasn’t easy. When he started, there were 223 students on campus, 98 percent of whom were women, as Flagler had begun as a women’s college.

“It’s a brand new school,” he remembered of the challenges. “It’s three years old. It’s not yet accredited. We have no alumni. We haven’t graduated our first class. There’s no sign out on the interstate that says, ‘Flagler College, St. Augustine.’”

It made for a difficult job, but Abare said everyone at Flagler worked hard to overcome the challenge and grow the college through focusing on strengths, the college’s ideal location and a lot of late nights. The first year they moved the needle from 223 students to 350 students, and then 420 students the next year.  

“There was this continuous growth,” he said. “It was the one thing that we could hang our hat on.”

It’s a theme that has defined his entire career, from growing enrollment as a new admissions director to growing the campus as a president: Abare as change maker.

“I’m a person who if I see an opportunity, if I see something that will be beneficial to the institution, if it will advance the image and reputation of the school, I can get pretty excited about it,” he said.  

This is home

What kept him at Flagler for so many years — far longer than most college presidents stay at a school? Abare said there have been many opportunities at other institutions over the years, but he always came to the same conclusion: “This is home … I really love it here.”

Serving 45 years at the same institution has also given him the chance to connect with every student who has ever walked across the stage at a Flagler graduation.

“I’m proud that I can say that I have attended every commencement ceremony and that I had the pleasure of watching the first graduating class of 35 students receive their diplomas,” he said. “When I became president in 2001, the college had a little more than 6,000 graduates.  We now have more than 16,000 graduates, and I have the distinction of seeing every one of those graduates walk across the stage to receive their diplomas.”

While he is stepping down as president, he doesn’t plan on going far.

“I am retiring as president, but I am planning to continue to work,” he said. “I want to spend more time playing golf, traveling with my wife, watching my grandchildren compete in sports and assisting my successor at the college in reaching new heights for the institution.”

* Update: Dr. Joseph G. Joyner, Superintendent of Schools for St. Johns County District in St. Augustine, Fla., was named President of Flagler College on Nov. 29, 2016, by the College’s Board of Trustees

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