James J. Annarelli, recently appointed as Eckerd College's sixth president, is pictured in his office on Monday, Feb. 27, 2023, in St. Petersburg. [ MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE | Times ]

On stage at a pre-commencement event Saturday, the former theology professor told Eckerd College graduates he wasn’t there to sermonize.

Jim Annarelli said the students could be preaching to him after a college career defined by a pandemic and rapid change in higher education.

“Your experiences over the past four years have positioned you to offer as much wisdom and insight to my colleagues and me as we might offer to you,” said Annarelli, announced in February as Eckerd’s sixth president. “You, members of the class of 2023, were Eckerd students during an unprecedented time.”

The words came from a veteran educator who was something of an unprecedented choice to lead the small liberal arts school on the shores of Boca Ciega Bay in St. Petersburg. When his predecessor, Damian Fernandez, stepped down last June, Annarelli filled in as interim president.

Six months later, the Eckerd board of trustees decided to keep him in the role instead of continuing a national search.

Eckerd College president James Annarelli stops to pet a dog while walking through the campus in St. Petersburg in February. [ MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE | Times ]

Annarelli, 68, has been at Eckerd for more than three decades, serving 21 years as dean for students along with a variety of other administrative positions. He worked closely with students on various initiatives — from Eckerd’s famed pet graduation, started in 2013, to the more recent Eckerd Together Forum, started in 2021 to unite the campus after a string of troubling social media posts and protests.

His own two children, now 31 and 27, grew up on the campus, he said, and were often toted along to weekend events. Eckerd students who graduated in the early 2000s came to be like older siblings and still keep in touch.

“We already had the right person for the job,” said Blanca Garcia, assistant director of inclusive excellence at Eckerd. “He always puts the college’s interest first and community interest first. It’s that leadership from the heart.”

Christyna Reagan, president of Eckerd’s Organization of Students, said she didn’t think students would be as excited about the president’s selection as they were when Annarelli was named.

“Everyone knows him,” she said.

His “unique position to understand the history and trajectory of the institution and its current opportunities and challenges,” made him a good fit, Eckerd board chairperson Ian Johnson said in a Feb. 14 announcement.

Students readily greet Annarelli when he walks around campus. During his first faculty meeting as president, he was met with a standing ovation.

Originally from New York, Annarelli worked as a professor of theology and authored the book “Academic Freedom and Catholic Higher Education” before arriving at Eckerd in 1990. He worked in an administrative role for what then was the Center for Applied Liberal Arts.

At the time, the faculty included members from 1958, when Eckerd was founded as Florida Presbyterian College.

It was then, Annarelli said, that “I got a sense of their fire in the belly for this grand experiment.” And that feeling stayed with him through the years, though he didn’t anticipate staying at Eckerd so long.

Garcia, the inclusive excellence director, said she learned from Annarelli what type of leader she wanted to be. In meetings, she noticed his perceptiveness and how people responded to what he said.

“He’s part of the community and knows Eckerd deeply,” Garcia said. “Most of us are here because there’s a set of values that are really important to us — values and a vision of the world. These are unprecedented times. This isn’t just a job for most of us. This is a place and community we really care about.”

Annarelli said he sees the president’s role as a vocation and his most pressing task as propelling Eckerd into the future.

“The question while I’m president that I want to lead the community in addressing is, what does a residential liberal arts college like Eckerd look like moving further into the 21st century?” he said. “How do we maintain our mission and focus, yet adapt that mission to changing needs in society and among our students?”

Other small liberal arts schools, including publicly funded New College of Florida in Sarasota, are facing a similar reckoning. But as a private institution, Eckerd has so far been insulated from the political currents that led to a tumultuous state takeover of New College earlier this spring.

While Eckerd’s enrollment has remained stable at just under 2,000 students, Annarelli said the school and others like it felt the pandemic’s impact more acutely, as they rely on a sense of community.

While social distancing was “an absolute necessity,” he said, the separation “undercut what is so very distinctive about Eckerd College and other small residential colleges.”

As interim president, he sought to “reestablish conversation” on campus, hosting events to bring people back together.

He said a more far-reaching discussion lies ahead with the faculty and others about the need to keep the curriculum relevant.

“We’re all aware of the demographic and financial headwinds that are facing all colleges today, and particularly small, private liberal arts colleges,” Annarelli said. “We can’t become a college for people who design widgets, as the colloquial expression goes. We need to read the signs of the times but do so through the lens of being a residential liberal arts college.”

To the students graduating over the weekend, he said the world they are entering has new social, political, economic and environmental challenges with no easy solutions.

“But as I advise my own children, I would say this: Begin with a vision of the world and your place within it,” the first-year president told them. “Begin with your vision, developed and honed, in part, during your years at Eckerd and the personal values that undergird that vision. And then, as consistently as you can, live out that vision. Take it one step at a time. Decision by decision. Day by day. Year by year.”

Higher education reporter for The Tampa Bay Times in partnership with Open Campus.