COLUMBIA — When members of the Stephens College community are asked what President Wendy Libby has done for the institution in the six years of her tenure, they don’t know where to begin.
When Libby took over in 2003, the school was $3.8 million in debt and undergraduate residential enrollment was at a low of 439. Whether the college would retain its accreditation was in question.
Since then, Libby has stabilized the school financially and increased enrollment in both graduate and undergraduate programs. This year, the school's deficit has been reduced to about $250,000, and the admissions office said 754 undergraduates have been enrolled for the fall semester. Faculty and students credit Libby with helping Stephens regain its spiritual strength and bringing a community of women back together.
For Libby, the time has apparently come to take her talents to a new town and a new college.
On Thursday, Stetson University in central Florida announced Libby would be its next president. After being approached by a search firm for Stetson, Libby accepted the job as the university’s ninth president. She will be its first woman president.
“I share the university’s commitment to academic excellence and transformation and look forward to leading Stetson into a new era of educating students to lead great lives,” Libby said in the news release. Libby was in Florida Thursday and unavailable for comment.
Libby is widely credited with revitalizing the image of Stephens, not just the education it offers but also the state of the campus. She oversaw the restoration of three buildings on campus and implemented the Renaissance Plan, a five-year strategic planning process that resulted in lifting Stephens out of its financial crisis.
The announcement of her departure left faculty and students shocked, saddened and wondering how any successor will ever match her accomplishments.
Students and faculty received the news via two e-mails at 11. a.m. Thursday. The first was from Libby and a second was from George Ann Harding, the chairwoman of the board of trustees.
“Wendy is leaving us strong and ready for the future. And we will have Wendy’s wise counsel and leadership as we move toward the coming transition,” Harding said in the e-mail.
On campus, those who had not yet checked their e-mail reacted to the news with surprise.
“It’s really sad,” said senior Lydi Ryback in disbelief as she sat talking to friends in Stamper Commons. “Even as a freshman, she knew who I was."
Sophomore Katelyn Deshazo had the same reaction.
“That is really sad and tragic for Stephens,” Deshazo said. “Besides keeping (Stephens) from totally going under, she makes each student feel as though we know her.”
It is Libby’s driving force and passion that some said they will miss most. Tina Parke-Sutherland, chairwoman of the faculty and professor of English and creative writing at Stephens, said Libby has been a “wonderful force” on the college’s campus.
“I think she let us believe in ourselves again,” Parke-Sutherland said. “After (previous President) Marcia Kierscht left, we were shaken. We didn’t know who we were anymore. She gave that to us.”
Beth Leonard, the dean of the school of performing arts at Stephens, said Libby has brought a “positive energy” to Stephens and Columbia as a whole.
“I have been here for a while, and sometimes there are a variety of feelings (when someone leaves),” Leonard said.
This time, she said, the feeling is sadness. “I hope Stetson knows what they are getting,” Leonard said.
Starting next week, Stephens will begin looking for Libby’s successor. Harding said she would be in Columbia next week, organizing a search committee. She said Libby has set the bar high.
“It will be tough to find a replacement that was equally as qualified as she was,” said Whitney Bash, a senior at Stephens.
Libby was chosen from more than 75 other applicants for the job at Stetson, a private liberal arts university with campuses in DeLand and Gulfport and two satellite campuses. The Stephens community didn’t seem surprised that she was chosen unanimously to be the university’s next president.
Parke-Sutherland said though she was sad at the prospect of Libby leaving, at least the Stephens community knew what to look for in a future president: “Wendy’s twin,” she said, half-joking. “We need the kind of leader people want to do their very best for. When we go to look, we will be looking for another Wendy.”