Wendy Libby

Stetson University

It isn’t surprising that Wendy Libby, president of Stetson University, cited The Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown as her current read. It is the inspiring story of nine working class American men, who struggled to get into college during the depression and overcame seemingly insurmountable obstacles, going to the 1936 Berlin Olympics and winning gold. Though she revels in the “huge interest” in Stetson’s women’s and men’s crew and that teams come from all over the country to train on their site on Lake Beresford and the St. Johns River, it is a tale of, as she says, “beating the odds and finding hope in the most desperate of times.”

Perhaps also it is the precision and choreography of synchronizing eight rowers, to respond to the communications of the coxswain that she relates to as well, as she leads an independent non-profit institution with more than 4,000 students on four campuses along the I-4 corridor. To add to it, “Our College of Law in the Tampa Bay area (No. 1 in the nation in trial advocacy) has hit all of its enrollment targets in a very tough market and also increased student quality despite an intensely competitive marketplace,” Libby said.

Libby described her journey into higher education saying, “After earning my MBA and working for private industry for four years, I started working in higher education because that was the largest industry.” Ithaca, N.Y., the home of Cornell University, is where she earned her undergraduate degree in biology with a concentration in genetics, as well as her MBA. “Education, I found, was great fun and I just kept doing it!”

But she added that pursuing her doctorate was the most important career decision she ever made. “I was still working full-time and driving to the University of Connecticut at night. When I completed my Ph.D. in 1994, opportunities in the industry opened up for me.” This included serving as vice president for business affairs and being the chief financial officer at Furman University, before becoming the president of Stephens College in Columbia, Mo., from 2003 to 2009.

According to Libby, that transition was a major milestone for her. “It is often difficult to move from a CFO position (I was the CFO at Furman University for eight years) to a university presidency. It took quite a few tries to find a college whose needs matched my strengths. After six years in my first presidency, I was ready for Stetson!”

Libby is the first female president in Stetson’s 183-year history, yet she said, “I believe that there was one time in my career when the novelty of hiring a woman probably gave me some extra points in getting the job. But by and large, I think top-level jobs in universities go to those most suited to be successful. Being a woman hasn’t been the definer of my success.” 

This article appears in the May 2015 issue of i4 Business.
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