WATCH: Dr. James Richey – Visionary Transformed Eastern Florida State College Into Top Institution of Higher Learning
By Maria Sonnenberg // January 24, 2023
Eastern Florida State ranks among top community colleges in the nation
WATCH: Last year marked Dr. Richey’s 10th at the school now known – thanks to him – as Eastern Florida State College. In a decade, Dr. Richey has catapulted EFSC to the top echelon of Florida’s institutions of higher learning.
BREVARD COUNTY, FLORIDA – All institutions depend on an “institution builder, a visionary, to spark the fuel of growth. For the former Brevard Community College, the visionary is Dr. James Richey.
Last year marked Dr. Richey’s 10th at the school now known – thanks to him – as Eastern Florida State College. In a decade, Dr. Richey has catapulted EFSC to the top echelon of Florida’s institutions of higher learning.
Ten years are not a huge amount of time in the life of educational institutions, but in that span, Dr. Richey has transformed EFSC both academically and physically.
Back in early 2012, school trustees such as Alan Landman knew that they had found the recipe for success in Dr. Richey, who was to become the sixth permanent chief executive to lead the school since its opening in 1960.
“He always had the bigger picture in mind,” said Landman.
During the interview for the job, the prospective new president wowed the board with a lengthy, highly detailed plan of how he would like the school to evolve to keep pace, or rather, be steps ahead, of a rapidly growing community.
“It has always been a great institution, but it needed to change as the community was changing,” he said.
“We needed to meet the need.”
His background provided the mix necessary to make change happen. Before being named interim president in 2011 following the retirement of Dr. Jim Drake, Dr. Richey had served as executive vice president and general counsel.
His first association with the college began when former Governor Charlie Crist appointed him to the board in 2007 before accepting the position of internal counsel the following year.
From 1996 to 2008, Dr. Richey practiced at his Melbourne law firm, focusing on business and employment law, corporate governance and charitable giving programs.
“He had the insight to bring a law and business approach to the job, a combination we felt was unique to guide the school,” said Landman. “He is always looking for what can be done better.”
To say he has “done better” for the school is quite the understatement.
Dr. Richey has overseen the most rapid and most comprehensive academic expansion in the school’s 62-year history, an expansion that includes 86 new programs.
Under his leadership, Brevard Community College officially became Eastern Florida State College in 2013, with 25 bachelor’s degree tracks that include healthcare, computer technology, nursing, education and business.
These tracks allow associate degree program students the convenience to earn their bachelor’s degree without having to leave EFSC.
“It has been a tremendous success,” said Landman.
More than 3,000 students have earned bachelor’s degrees at EFSC and many of them have continued their education at highly selective, prestigious institutions such as the University of Miami’s Miller School of Medicine.
“Our four-year programs are making a significant difference in people’s lives, giving them the ability to advance their careers and giving business and industry the skilled employees they need to grow and prosper,” said Dr. Richey.
Strong partnerships with 10 other Florida institutions allow students even further flexibility in continuing their education. For example, the DirectConnect program with the University of Central Florida grants automatic entry into the university after a student receives an associate’s degree from EFSC.
Senior-year students studying business can – if they have at least a 3.4 GPA – gain admission to Florida Tech’s Masters in Business Admission program through the SmartTrack MBA initiative. Additional initiatives position students for entry into schools such as Florida State University and Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University.
Responding to Need
Principal players at many educational institutions develop new educational tracks without much investigation on the need and demand for the careers these fields nurture.
Not so Dr. Richey, who worked closely with leaders in the regional business community to design training that will segue into in-demand job opportunities and that will provide businesses with the workforce they need in today’s global economy.
“In the old days, we said here is your AA degree and that’s that,” said Dr. Richey.
To give students an even greater advantage in the job market, the college has significantly increased real-world experience opportunities through internships and apprenticeships at some of the area’s most important employers.
For example, students in the Aerospace Technology and Engineering Program apprentice at companies such as Lockheed Martin, leading the front lines of space exploration with the NASA Orion spacecraft that will deliver astronauts back to the moon and beyond to Mars.
Always empathetic to the non-traditional student, EFSC has also embraced online learning that allows working students to pursue their dreams of higher education. Students can now choose from hundreds of courses to earn bachelor’s and associate’s degrees and college certifications completely online.
EFSC also walks the walk when it comes to cultural diversity, with minority enrollment comprising 38 percent of the total student population.
Nurturing tomorrow’s workforce does not end in the classroom. Under Dr. Richey’s tenure, the college has vastly expanded Student Services to include a Career Planning and Development Center, which has served 75,000 prepare to enter the workforce and a Military and Veterans’ Service Center that provides specialized assistance to vets and active-duty military and their dependents.
The college has also significantly expanded its financial aid, tutoring and advising services to better address student retention.
Dr. Richey took EFSC’s helm at the school’s half-century mark, a time when the 50-plus buildings spread over four campuses were beginning to show their age.
He revitalized the campus through a major building plan that includes several state-of-the-art facilities, such as the Melbourne Campus Health Sciences Institute, which serves the next generation of healthcare professionals.
Another recent addition to the Melbourne Campus is the Public Safety Institute, where future law enforcement officers, paramedics and other first responders train.
Also new on the Melbourne Campus is a student housing complex that, for the first time in the college’s history, allows EFSC students to live and learn deep in the college environment.
Enhancing the college experience is the new Student Union building and the Sports Complex, with new facilities for soccer, baseball, softball, tennis, basketball and volleyball.
“It is one of the finest sports complexes,” said Landman.
Such facilities have nurtured champions in the college’s 13 athletic programs, which now boast national championship teams in women’s soccer and men’s tennis, as well as nationally-ranked teams in basketball and golf.
The King Center for the Performing Arts, an integral part of the Melbourne Campus, experienced major renovation, the most extensive upgrades to the Space Coast’s premier entertainment venue since the facility opened in 1988.
After the $3.5 “facelift,” made possible through state grants, corporate sponsors and private donations, the King Center emerged fresh with a new front entrance, main lobby and VIP Crown Room and HVAC system.
The Melbourne Campus was not the only one to enjoy new facilities. Cocoa saw a new Advanced Manufacturing Center and a Fire Training Center that trains firefighters for both the county’s Fire Rescue Department as well as for all 13 of the Space Coast’s 13 municipalities. The new Mechatronics Lab combines engineering, electronics and computing for product design and manufacturing.
At the Palm Bay Campus, cutting-edge Robotics and Cybersecurity Labs provide hands-on training on a field increasingly in demand.
The facility expansion led by Dr. Richey goes beyond the perimeter of the campuses. At Melbourne-Orlando International Airport, an Aviation Center trains students to become aviation and aerospace technicians and mechanics.
“We have witnessed a tremendous expansion of our physical facilities,” said Landman.
All the growth has not come at a price for students, since not once during Dr. Richey’s tenure has the school raised annual tuition, which, at under $3,000 a year, places EFSC among the most affordable – and more value for the money – institutions of higher education in Florida, if not the nation.
Dr. Richey also helped grow the Eastern Florida State College Foundation to a record $29 endowment to provide student scholarships, enabling even more students to pursue higher education.
Conscientious stewardship of the school’s finances has placed EFSC in a place many schools would love to be.
“The college is in the best shape it has been in years because we don’t make unrealistic budget assumptions,” said Dr. Richey.
Dr. Richey hasn’t stopped to rest, either.
Just as we are catching our breath with the last 10-year plan, he directs this new 10-year, $87-million, plan to greatly improve our Cocoa Campus,” said Jack Parker, vice president for external affairs.
“I think it does put the exclamation point on Jim’s career here.”
The 10-year plan is the result of nearly a year of work that included input from students, employees and local residents.
The plan will usher in new facilities for fields such as aerospace technology, engineering technology and advanced manufacturing. New and renovated buildings will also house classrooms and labs for healthcare, science and other programs.
The plan reflects workforce demands of local industry – including commercial space companies at Kennedy Space Center, other high-tech firms and healthcare providers– for highly skilled employees.
Most of the funding is being requested through appropriations from the Florida Legislature and follows the $22 million the college has spent in recent years on a range of Cocoa campus upgrades.
Some of the master plan work is already underway with the college spending $1 million this year to repaint campus buildings and improve landscaping.
The project includes a new Advanced Technologies building for programs such as aerospace and engineering technology, a new STEM building for science classrooms and labs, major renovations to the Health Science Center for healthcare programs and dentistry, a campus housing complex for 192 students, a new planetarium to replace the former building closed since 2017 because of hurricane damage, a revitalized amphitheater and enhanced ground improvements.
“The new facilities will be state-of-the-art, giving students access to the best technology, equipment and labs, making them the go-to place for learning,” said Dr. Richey.
“Student housing will make Cocoa a destination campus where students can live and study.”
The Melbourne Campus student housing has enjoyed such success that it currently has a waiting list.
The college will remain committed to an educational mission that includes the facilitation of both associate’s and bachelor’s degrees, as well as to initiatives such as the Pentagon-sponsored Advanced Composites Learning Center to train technicians in innovative technologies for the Space Coast’s aerospace and defense industries.
“It’s a once-in-a-generation opportunity to reimagine the campus’ role and what it can provide students, Space Coast industry and the Cocoa community,” said Dr. Rickey.
“It’s going to have a significant impact and benefit everyone.”
Navigating the Pandemic
Dr. Richey’s team took an aggressive and innovative approach to the COVID-19 crisis to ensure students could continue their education, despite the fact that all campuses closed from March 2020 to August 2021. The school rapidly pivoted more than 3,400 in-person classes online, 1,800 of those within a two-week period.
“Eastern Florida was a leader in turning in-person into online during the pandemic,” said Dr. Richey. “We didn’t stumble at all.”
More than 20,800 students received $11.7 million in emergency federal COVID grants, playing an important role in helping them stay in school. 7,500 students participated in virtual and drive-through commencement ceremonies in 2020/2021, proof that despite the challenges, it was business as usual at EFSC.
Successful growth and effective response to challenges such as COVID require a team committed to the vision of a leader who leads by example. EFSC’s administrative staff is fiercely loyal to their president.
“I absolutely adore working for the president,” said Parker, who joined the EFSC family ten years ago.
“He never quits and rests on his laurels. He has a great heart, but zero tolerance for laziness.”
Parker, by the way, is a true EFSC Titan, a graduate of the school’s Corrections Academy and a 1986 graduate.
Surrounding himself with dedicated faculty and staff such as Parker allows Dr. Richey to realize his goals for EFSC.
“If we pull together, we can do amazing things,” he said.
EFSC has come a long, long way since it began life in 1960 when a handful of faculty members would hold classes at the old Cocoa High School building.
In 2017, the Florida Board of Education awarded EFSC the prestigious Gold Rating for its performance in student success. That same year, the college also earned the 2017 Chancellor’s Best Practice Award from the Florida College System for “innovation and excellence in launching exciting careers in aviation.”
EFSC, which ranks among the top 150 community colleges in the nation, has also received multiple nominations for the Aspen Prize for best community college in the nation.
Not long ago, Dr. Richey, wearing an EFSC logo shirt, was shopping at a Publix when a young man approached him to ask if he was associated with the school. Nodding a “yes,” Dr. Richey then asked him what he thought of the school.
“I love the school, the options are so many,” said the student.
For Dr. Richey, the moment was, as the old credit card commercial put it, priceless.
“That made me feel extremely good,” he said.