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Wetherell Was a Lion for Higher Education

Dec 19, 2018
Originally published on December 18, 2018 5:44 pm

The weekend death of former Florida legislative leader and longtime educator T-K Wetherell is being mourned throughout the state; especially by those Floridians involved in any with the state's institutions of higher learning.

Perhaps few people have had as extensive a background in higher education than T.K. Wetherell. It began when he came to Florida State University on a football scholarship in 1963. He would go on to earn both undergraduate and doctorate degrees in education from FSU. He would eventually return to that school in another capacity. But first, Wetherell would pursue another great love, which was politics. He served in the Florida House from 1980 until 1992, the last two years as House Speaker. And then he resumed his involvement in higher education. That included a post at his hometown two-year institution, Daytona Beach Community College, an education professorship at HBCU Bethune Cookman and a stint as president of the Independent Colleges and Universities of Florida. As he recounted on WFSU’s Perspectives program two years ago this month, that led to the presidency of Tallahassee Community College. Wetherell recalled he took over an institution that needed rapid expansion of its physical plant.

“So we have to acquire some land to build some buildings to house some outstanding faculty and that….and I think that was one of the initial challenges that we had,” he recalled.

Until that time, Florida’s community colleges and the state’s four-year universities nearly operated in totally separate universes. A separation that Wetherell acknowledged made complete sense historically.

“The purpose of higher education from a community college standpoint is totally different than a public research graduate university like Florida State University. And that’s why the community colleges were set up.”

Wetherell could appreciate that better than just about anyone, because he would go on to lead FSU from 2002 until 2010. But while at TCC, Wetherell was trying to create a stronger, more productive connection between two year and four year institutions.

“We actually formalized a contract with FSU and FAMU that allowed students to actually take certain courses and when they transferred in – which they would have done anyway as an AA student – to the School of Business for example, it took some prerequisites off the table so they were able to progress along as if they had been at Florida State University.”

At the time, this was a revolutionary concept. But the idea took off; Wetherell noting this actually boosted student enrollment in the state’s 28 community colleges.

“The access to the four-year degree without missing a beat and without incurring additional express was a big draw. And I think that program is still in place and doing well in most places,” he noted.

And, as much as Wetherell treasured the 8 years he spent at the helm of Florida State, he noted that in one aspect at least, running a two-year school like T.C.C. was far easier.

“There are 28 community colleges in the state. So almost every legislator has a community college in their legislative district. Not all of them have a university – and certainly not a University of Florida or Florida State – a graduate research university. So finding money in the community college system from a legislative perspective sometimes is easier than a university perspective.”

Having been the only person to not only head both a community college and major research university, and the Florida House, no one would know that better than T.K. Wetherell. He died on Sunday at the age of 72. A public funeral service is set for 1 p.m. on Friday, Dec. 21 in Ruby Diamond Concert Hall.

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