By Fred Arnold
Provost James Olliver celebrates his last year at St. Petersburg College Seminole; here is his story.
St. Petersburg College – a community college that has spread through Pinellas County like wildfire – is the highlight of affordable higher education and is a college with professors, administrators, and students who really care. Spanning the county, the school contains campuses from Tarpon to Downtown St. Pete – each complete with its own culture, diversity, and methods. The plans for St. Petersburg College, Seminole Campus started out in the 1970s. Taking two decades to finalize, the campus opened in 1995 with Dr. James Olliver as the founding provost. Today we celebrate this man’s retirement. After fifteen years of leadership, from the opening of the first TL building, to the Habitat Park, to partnerships with Duke Energy, James Olliver has always been there. We do not just celebrate James Olliver as an amazing provost, we celebrate him as one of SPC Seminole’s closest friends.
After interviewing for but not being selected for a job at Tallahassee Community College in 1988, Dr Olliver received a phone call at 10 PM one night. That call ended with him driving to an airport where he interviewed between plane gates for a job as Vice President of Planning at St. Petersburg Junior College. Time went on. In 1989 he was selected as the VP for Planning, and in 1995, he was named provost of the yet to be built Seminole Campus.
“It has been a dream job,” Dr. Olliver said. “It is not every day you start with an empty piece of ground and get to build a campus.”
And that is exactly what he did. Starting off with just the TL building, Dr. Olliver added program after program and building after building. He worked for education. He worked for the staff. But most importantly, he worked for the students.
“It is always what the students need,” he said, in regards to customer satisfaction at SPC Seminole. “Treat them with respect, and always find a way to get them what they need.”
Some programs and additions he added to the Seminole Campus include a partnership with Duke Energy, which funded the Solar Array in the front of the campus. He also added the Habitat Park, a fantastic scenic addition, as well as many partnerships with the City, County, and Chamber of Commerce for funding programs and events.
“When the campus first started, we had the opportunity to ‘steal the best from the rest,’ meaning great staff members from other sites were recruited to be part of the vision of a new high tech campus,” he said. To Olliver, the campus would not have succeed without a great team. Finding the right faculty and staff, with the right mix of expertise, energy, and attitude was the recipe for success.
“Everyone has strengths, and everyone has weaknesses,” he said, “and the staff here at Seminole work well within their respective area of strength. I could not have done it without them.”
A dad, a grandfather, a husband. Dr. Olliver exemplifies the ideal American dream of success, satisfaction, and respect. Working hard came easy since he grew up in a family where working hard was a core value.
“I grew up in a house where I had the best of both worlds,” Dr. Olliver said, speaking about his parents. “It was a very 1950’s home. My dad, outgoing, my mom more quiet – both valued education.”
His drive for success started early, and as a kid in cold and snowy Buffalo, New York, he had an early morning paper route. “It was a good character builder,” he said, “though I could have done without the frostbite!”
“I was a good kid,” he said, “but I also had some bad moments,” he continued with a chuckle. Even Dr. Olliver’s bad moments seemed mild compared to some of the trouble kids can get into nowadays.
“It was nothing serious;” he concluded, “breaking curfew here or there, and failing a test.”
With a relatively uneventful teenage life, Dr. Olliver started college with an interest in math. As he took more and more classes, however, he realized that math was not going to translate into a career for him. Classes in philosophy reshaped his thinking; he loved working through the policy problems. This prompted him to get involved in Student Government. After having the pleasure of serving in a blue ribbon Chancellor’s Panel on University Purposes in the New York State Capital of Albany, he found a love for higher education leadership and administration that erupted into his passion, and ultimately, led to his dream job as provost.
His time coming to a close, Dr. Olliver looks forward to the change. His confidence in the new Provost, Mark Strickland, settles the nerves for most, but some still remain skeptical. “Some folks are saying, ‘how will we survive without you,’ well… everyone will be just fine,” he said. “We have built a culture of quality, innovation, and service that will endure, and Mark has the credentials and temperament to take us to the next level.”
Dr. Olliver wishes the best of luck to the new provost and has high hopes that he will do well. His best advice to succeed? Value the staff. “And don’t be quick to make changes,” he said. “Listen and learn the culture.”
It is safe to say that the SPC Seminole Campus would not be the same without Dr. Olliver, but time must move on. He will not be forgotten. His memory will reside in the groves of the Habitat Park, in the energy of the solar array, and the partnerships he cultivated; his memory will continue on because the Seminole Campus would not be the Seminole Campus without Dr. James Olliver.
“Thank you for a great time and all the support,” he said in his final words to students, faculty, and staff, “and never lose sight of our vision to serve our students and our community by excellence in the classrooms and engagement outside of them.”
All photos above are St. Petersburg College’s or Fred Arnold’s and must have expressed permission to be used