Dr. Stacy McAfee: Education to Power a Nation

As the first female president of the University College of the Cayman Islands, Dr. McAfee arrives with a bold vision

By Kimerley Olson

As a child, Stacy McAfee loved to pretend that she was a teacher. As she got older, she was equally drawn to business. Happily, she found that she didn’t have to choose between the two.

After earning an MBA, Dr. McAfee taught at DePaul University, where she relished bringing both real-world experiential learning and theory to students. Over time, she managed to combine her dual passions—teaching and business—by carving out a career in leadership in advanced education. By moving into administration, she knew that she could impact the lives of even more students, not just those who entered her classroom.

On January 1, 2019, Dr. McAfee became president of the University College of the Cayman Islands (UCCI), the first woman to helm the university. She was hired following a rigorous, yearlong search for a visionary leader who could boldly lead the university into the future, and she sees the position as a unique opportunity to help Caymanians pursue their dreams while growing a nation’s economy.

Dr. McAfee’s leadership experience includes serving as associate vice president for external relations, strategic partnerships, and presidential initiatives for University of the Pacific in Northern California. Prior to that, she received national recognition for her work at the University of Phoenix, where she led the Bay Area campus. Dr. McAfee has also served as faculty at DePaul University, Elmhurst College, University of Phoenix, St. Charles Community College, and College of DuPage.

She holds an EdD in educational leadership and management from Drexel University, an MBA from DePaul University, a bachelor’s in business administration from Iowa State University, and an associate of arts from Highland Community College.

Diversity Woman: What excites you about joining UCCI?
Stacy McAfee: Leading the public university in Cayman with talented faculty and staff is a once-in-a-lifetime nation-building opportunity. There is one public university [in the Cayman Islands], so the work that we do sets the course for this nation and our citizens in a profound way. We’re positioned to build clear pathways through education for prosperity for people who live in the Cayman Islands. By doing that well, we grow our economy and equip people with access to quality education that allows them to achieve personal and professional goals.

DW: While at University of the Pacific, you helped spearhead an effort to bring the university’s core values into every part of its DNA. What are UCCI’s core values?
SM: We have a beautiful set of values that were called out in our strategic plan, simplified into three themes—transformative, inclusive, nation building. So what will emerge over the next few years is how our hiring, orientation, evaluation—all of that—reflect those values.

DW: What is your primary vision for UCCI?
SM: Our vision is to become a student-centered, suitably resourced engine for economic development, innovation, and social change. We know that many of our students are accessing postsecondary education as the first member of their family. We also want to advance subject matter expertise and cognitive development. In the end, we want everyone who comes through UUCI to have understood their own sense of agency and to be civically responsible as they go forward in their life. We see this work as strategic engagement of our campus community with external stakeholders. This is a rich, dynamic environment with fascinating people and businesses who we want to seamlessly bring into the work that we do together.

Becoming an engine for economic development and an agent of social change is a big part of the nation-building effort, where our teaching and scholarly activities adapt to address the educational research and innovation needs of Cayman. We believe that by being a convener and a thought leader, we will influence society in positive ways.

We’re beginning to allow our research, for example, to more closely align with some of the issues that we’re facing—sustainability issues, in particular, as a small island nation. We have a journal that we publish here at UCCI for our faculty but also regionally across the Caribbean. Others are invited to contribute to the journal. We’re also moving forward with a student journal to give voice to our young leaders and teach them that, by studying and developing an informed opinion, you have a voice in the conversation about what your nation becomes.

DW: How are you focusing on the university’s value of inclusivity?
SM: We have a diverse student population here in the Cayman Islands, and those who may need certain types of support or resources may not be the first to reach for them. Culturally, things might look different from one group of students to another. So we’re moving toward a mind-set, and hopefully a physical manifestation, of a one-stop center where you can seek the guidance that you need—for everything from student life, to financial services, to advisement and cocurricular experiences, to IT support. We want every student to have a rich experience, and we believe it’s incumbent upon us to meet students where they’re at, versus waiting for them to reach out to us for any support they might need.
I get up every day with the promise that education can be more inclusive and can be a better equalizer. It was in my life, and that’s what I believe is really the importance of the work of education. If you’re at the beginning of your career, in the middle, or advancing, how do we make that simpler, so that people don’t feel left out of the market and the path into great jobs? It is my wish, as we work more closely with industry and educators, to develop something here that will allow more people to access and flourish in what is a vibrant and dynamic economy.

DW: How has your leadership style changed over the years?
SM: What others have said is that I can be a very transformational and charismatic leader. I love to build things with others, and I’ve been blessed to take on some big challenges in organizations that were excited to innovate. I always have a big, bold vision, but I’ve learned that I need to slow down and make sure that others are coming along with me and that they’ve owned that and it becomes their story. That’s when the most powerful change happens.

DW: As the first woman to lead UCCI, do you think you bring fresh eyes to the job?
SM: The feedback that I have received does affirm that I’m bringing a fresh perspective and one that’s welcomed. It’s interesting how many women have specifically noted what it means to them to have a woman at the helm. They see a collaborative and creative leader who’s building bridges.

I think it’s incredibly important to bring diverse voices to the table. Our student representative council is energized. Since January, we’ve seen not only growth in the leadership and membership but also in their interest in owning certain aspects of student life and bringing their voices forward to advocate for what they believe their education should be. That’s an example of what we hope to do to build a powerful education that serves this nation well.

DW: What is the big challenge now facing those working in advanced education?
SM: In many ways, the operating model built hundreds of years ago—that, quite frankly, hasn’t changed that much—was built to serve a different type of student at a different time, without the content that is now universally available. We certainly want to teach subject matter expertise, but we know that in a moment—because of how technology is disrupting every discipline—whatever we might learn today will probably change pretty rapidly. So we need to teach students how to effectively work in the digital world and how to reach for information to make decisions.

DW: What’s distinctive about the 
Cayman Islands?
SM: It’s easy to point to the stunning beauty, the diversity in the population, and a collection of extremely talented people who choose to reside here. But I’ve been even more impressed by another type of beauty—the kindness and generosity of those who live here. Caymanians are warm and welcoming and encouraging. It feels small enough that you can effect change and big enough that it has an importance in the world and it will matter what we do here next. DW
Kimberly Olson is Diversity Woman’s managing editor.

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