Debra Dabney Austin: An education pioneer

Person of the Week

Debra Dabney Austin



By Dorothy Inman-Johnson
Special to the Outlook

Tallahassee residents who have been around since the 1980s will remember Dr. Debra Austin and her husband, Ken Austin, as one of Tallahassee’s young power couples. They were junior high sweethearts and have been married for 39 years. She is a native of Leesburg, Florida; earned her Bachelor degree in English from Michigan State University, a Master’s degree in English from the University of Florida, and both a Master’s degree in Business Administration and a doctorate in Higher Education from Florida State University. She moved to Tallahassee in 1978 and became a rising star in the education arena while her husband was an up and comer in local government; first as assistant to City Manager Dan Kleman, one of the first Black City of Tallahassee department heads, and later retired from the position of Director of the Tallahassee Regional Airport.

Debra began her 33 year professional career in higher education as an English instructor at Lake Sumter Community College in her hometown of Leesburg. After relocating to Tallahassee, her career caught fire. She has held high profile positions in all three of the major institutions of higher education in Tallahassee. Dr. Austin has served as Executive Vice President and Acting President at Tallahassee Community College, Assistant Vice President for Academic Affairs and Clinical Professor in FSU’s Higher Education Program, and Provost/ Vice President of Academic Affairs at Florida A & M University. But, her crowning achievement was being appointed the first Black female Chancellor of the State University System of Florida.

Though she is currently enjoying retirement, Debra continues to contribute valuable community and professional service. She is a Life Member of Leadership Florida (Class XV), President of the Tallahassee Chapter of the Links, Incorporated, Co-Director of Vacation Bible School and Sunday School Superintendent of the Bethel A.M.E. Church in Tallahassee, and a Golden Life Member of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc. She served three terms on the Board of Tallahassee Memorial Healthcare; was a founding member of Whole Child Leon, on the Board of the Tallahassee Urban League, and on the Board of the Alfred B. Maclay College Preparatory School.

She has been recognized for her extraordinary professional contributions and service with an honorary doctorate from Flagler College, the Guardian of the Flame Award in the FSU College of Education, the Christopher J. Campbell Distinguished Alumni Award from the FSU College of Business, and the Franklin Academy Distinguished Achievers Award. She was, also, one of seven women featured in the book Answering the Call: African-American Women in Higher Education Leadership.

Debra and Ken have two adult daughters, a son-in-law, and two very energetic grandchildren. Dr. Austin has set a wonderful example for her daughters and all women; and is, therefore, being recognized as the Capital Outlook Newspaper’s Person of the Week.