Some administrators disappear without notice.
Cloistered in their offices, there is little evidence that they have moved on, other than the appearance of a different vehicle in their reserved parking space.
J.A. Roy Bodden, who is stepping down as president of the University College of the Cayman Islands at the end of the month, is not one of those.
From the beginning of his nine-year tenure, Mr. Bodden has made his presence known on the small campus. A tall lanky figure with an ambling gait, he is famous for walking the grounds on an almost daily basis, engaging with students and staff alike.
“If you were to come to campus early in the morning, you would see him talking to the students,” said Vice President and Provost Livingston Smith, the man who hired Mr. Bodden as an adjunct professor in the early 2000s when Mr. Bodden was still Minister of Education. A former teacher, the president spent 20 years in politics before taking the helm at UCCI.
Student Charles Lewinson Jr., student council president, said Mr. Bodden’s emphatic greetings and conversations were an important part of his UCCI experience.
“He would say, ‘Good morning. How are you doing?’” Mr. Lewinson said during a recent event honoring the president. “He would think of inspirational sayings.”
He said Mr. Bodden often told students, “You are braver than you seem, stronger than you believe and smarter than you think.”
Mr. Bodden himself did not have that kind of confidence when he took over as president in 2009. The campus was still reeling from a scandal involving the previous president, Hassan Syed, who had been accused, and was eventually convicted, of embezzling more than $700,000 from the university, leaving it deeply in debt.
The atmosphere was also less than ideal. He said he began walking the campus as a matter of necessity.
“In the first semester I was here, there were three student fights where the police had to be called,” he said. “The atmosphere was rough. It was a kind of jungle.
“I said, ‘I have to set the example. I have to establish myself,’” he added. “I started walking the campus. The students began to talk to me and engage. That was a change to a more collegial atmosphere.”
The students, he said, told him they struggled with confidence and felt little encouragement. He talked to them about his own young life in Bodden Town and helped them set goals for themselves. He said he soon learned the responsibility he had taken on.
“One morning I was out and a lady came to drop off her daughter,” he recalled. “She wound her window down and said, ‘I want you to know that you are the reason I’m bringing my daughter here. I trust you.’ I prayed to God to help me to live up to that. I wanted to prove that a Caymanian could do a good job as president.”
With the school teetering on the brink of insolvency, that was no easy task.
“The first thing was assuring the financial integrity of the institution,” Mr. Bodden said, “making sure the breaches were closed and there was accountability. It was a tall order. At the time it seemed next to impossible.”
It took substantially longer than he expected.
“I thought at the beginning, I would just stay three years,” Mr. Bodden said. “But I couldn’t get it stabilized in three years.”
The school typically now operates with a modest surplus. He gives a lot of the credit to the school’s chief financial officer.
“I had a great CFO in Ansel Tempral,” he said.
Such praise is not unusual. Mr. Bodden regularly attributes his success to a supportive staff.
“I want to give credit to the people with whom I’ve worked,” he said. “Thanks to the help of many people and the Almighty, I have done what I wanted to do.”
Those things include the construction of the campus observatory, the addition of a nursing program, a push to grow the science, technology, engineering and math-related curriculum, introducing a performing arts program and establishing a social work program. He also strengthened the ties the school has with international universities, providing transfer pipelines for students, and set the campus on a pathway toward international certification.
Former UCCI Board of Governors Chairman Lemuel Hurlston said Mr. Bodden has a strong legacy.
“He can be proud of what UCCI has become under his leadership,” Mr. Hurlston said. “The institution has really matured from being a community college to serving a much broader constituency, and it’s doing so without an enormous increase in the amount of resources. If it had greater capital investment, I think it would be much more successful.”
Rating the campus on a scale of one to 10, he said, “it was probably a two or three when he took it over and I would say it’s probably around a seven or eight now.”
Mr. Bodden said he recognizes there is still much to be done.
“There have been some spectacular successes,” he said. “But there have been some miserable failures.”
His efforts to engage the community with the campus have largely been stymied, he said. He expected the performing arts might be a vehicle for engagement, but it did not create the bridge he’d hoped for. He thinks establishing an open campus, where the public can drop in and listen to a course lecture, might help.
“I want to have the campus owned by the community,” he said.
He’s also disappointed that government has not moved on rehabilitating the campus’ physical plant. Mr. Bodden said he believes a new site needs to be found and a new college constructed.
“These buildings are old and decrepit,” he said, referring to structural deficiencies and leaky roofs. “If something’s not done, the physical condition is going to affect morale and academics and success.”
Those and other challenges sometimes got to him, he said.
“When I go home at night and talk to my wife, sometimes I have to cry because I got beat up,” he said, referring to a bad day. “But I also tell her, ‘You know what I heard today? A student said, “I’m sorry to see you go.”’ And I say, ‘Yes!’”
That student support, he said, is most important to him. He said he tried to see each student on campus as his own.
Mr. Bodden’s secretary, Wendy Lauer, has been with him since he came to UCCI as president. She said his commitment to the students often went beyond mere encouragement.
“President Bodden often referred to himself as a priest, a fisher of students, with the responsibility of shepherding every student in their educational pursuit,” Ms. Lauer said in an email. “Indeed, he went further than that. Students who came to college hungry, he provided meals to. Those who could ill afford tuition fees and textbooks, he aided. And to those in need of a listening ear, counselling and encouragement, he was reachable.”
While Mr. Bodden said he will miss those relationships and other aspects of his job, he said he’s happy to be leaving his post. He’s handing the reins to Stacy McAfee, who takes over on Jan. 1.
“I would like to make a clean break,” he said. “I want to go away for a while. Perhaps a long while.”
He had planned to retreat to a life of writing, penning a mix of memoir, fiction and poetry. He said his biography is due to be published in the spring and he is working on a novel. He also has a small farm he wants to tend to.
Those plans may have changed somewhat at his retirement ceremony, when Education Minister Juliana O’Connor-Connolly announced she plans to ask Mr. Bodden to write some Cayman-based textbooks for local schools.
Mr. Bodden said he’s anxious to hear the minister’s proposal – which she promised in the coming weeks – but does not expect to make a full-time commitment.
“We shall see,” he said. “I will take the minister’s offer as seriously as I can. It depends on what I’m expected to do. I think I could probably balance that [with his other writing] and do both well.”
Either way, he said, he is at peace with his UCCI career.
“I’m satisfied I have done the best I can do,” he said. “I feel good that I have left a mark. I wanted to make a contribution to this land that I love so much.”