Let's be bold in charting the future of UCF

Kickoff for the UCF Collective Impact Strategic Planning Process
Live Oak Center on the UCF campus

October 4, 2015

Thank you for that gracious introduction, and welcome everyone! When someone mentions my 23 years of leadership at UCF, my response these days is, “I’m going to keep trying until I get it right!” We’ll hope that’s not too far in the distance.

To each member of this distinguished group, let me offer a big Knights thank you for participating in our Collective Impact strategic planning effort. Computer scientist and futurist Alan Kay once said that the best way to predict the future is to invent it. Together, we will shape the vision and strategies that will invent the future of Florida’s most popular university, a future of even greater excellence, impact, and opportunity. Let’s charge on!

Occasionally I am asked: “What is your dream for UCF?” My answer is simple: I want UCF to be recognized as one of the great universities in this country and in the world.

I am pleased that Thad Seymour, recently retired from the Tavistock Group and a long-time friend of UCF, is orchestrating our strategic planning efforts in coordination with Provost Whittaker and his team. And how fitting that we launch this endeavor with the help of the Honorable Marcos Marchena, chairman of the UCF Board of Trustees. Marcos is a distinguished alumnus, who has participated in UCF’s evolution since the 1970s.

Friends, this is important work. Let me assure you that we did not assemble this talented group to generate a report that will be tossed on a shelf and forgotten.

We need your insight, intelligence, and experience to help move our great university forward, and I can’t wait to hear your ideas and to see what you produce!

Occasionally I am asked: “What is your dream for UCF?” My answer is simple: I want UCF to be recognized as one of the great universities in this country and in the world.

As we look to the future, let’s be bold in our thinking. Our greatest risk at UCF is to dream too small rather than to dream too big. Remember, this is a place that does what others say cannot be done. It’s a place that transforms the impossible into the inevitable.

We are a new kind of university that leads as well as serves its city-state. UCF provides an affordable, high-value education to people of diverse backgrounds. That education enhances lives. And that education develops the talent that advances the prosperity of our society.

Just two Monday’s ago, a front-page story in the Washington Post carried this headline: “At UCF, bigger is better. Packed Florida college, with a focus on cost and access, storms higher ed.” The secret of UCF is getting out! I really appreciate the great work that Grant Heston and his folks have done. Let’s recognize them.

Fewer than 50 years after classes opened in 1968, UCF has emerged as one of the great success stories in higher education. No university that I know of has progressed this far this fast.

The magnitude of change that UCF has experienced in just my 23 years as president amazes me.

When I arrived on campus, enrollment was 21,200, we awarded fewer than 30 doctoral degrees each year, and our annual research funding totaled approximately $28 million.

This fall, enrollment topped 63,000, we will confer hundreds of doctoral degrees, and annual research funding exceeds $130 million.

At UCF this fall, the average SAT score for our freshman class is a record 1261, compared to a state average score of 966.

The average GPA of our incoming freshmen is a record 4.0, and we have enrolled 69 National Merit scholars, which should put us among the top 15 among public universities nationally.

Meanwhile, our minority enrollment this fall has reached an all-time high of 43 percent, which reflects the popularity of UCF as a university of choice for students from many backgrounds.

In fact, more high school students send their SAT scores to UCF in consideration of enrollment than to any other university in Florida.

Fewer than 50 years after classes opened in 1968, UCF has emerged as one of the great success stories in higher education. No university that I know of has progressed this far this fast.

We are a major metropolitan research university of global reach, and we are being recognized nationally as a champion for providing a high-quality education that is accessible, affordable, and impactful.

We confer more than 15,000 degrees annually to lead all other universities in Florida. That figure represents a lot of lives and livelihoods transformed through the power of education, particularly when you consider that one of every four of our students is the first in a family to attend college.

The Washington Post story described UCF and Arizona State University as in the “vanguard of an insurgency that aims to demolish the popular belief that exclusivity is a virtue in higher education.”

The story went on to say, “Their solution, possibly a blueprint for others around the country, combines a bustling traditional campus with an ever-widening menu of online and semi-online courses. And they’re doing it at a relatively low price.”

To that point, in your pre-meeting packet is a recent Ithaka Foundation case study titled “Breaking the Iron Triangle at The University of Central Florida.” The “iron triangle” refers to a popular view that universities and colleges are constrained by a trio of linked factors: cost, quality, and access. Improve one of those three variables, the thinking goes, and you will adversely affect the others.

However, the Ithaka study says that this university – perhaps better than any other – is showing how to simultaneously reduce costs, improve quality, and enhance access.

And last month, U.S. News & World Report rated UCF as the most innovative school in Florida. The magazine put us tied for 13th as one of the most innovative universities in the nation, along with Harvard, Stanford, Duke, and MIT.

The schools on this list are testing innovations in curricula, pedagogy, student services, technology, and facilities.

One innovation is to align our teaching, research, and service with the needs of our local economy. In Central Florida, those areas include simulation and training, optics and lasers, hospitality management, video game production, business, education, and health care.

This alignment has helped to make UCF a vital force for the advancement of our area’s economic prosperity.

Two decades ago, we were an afterthought in the business community; now, it is common wisdom that no major economic development happens in Central Florida without UCF’s involvement.

Part of your charge is to help us anticipate where else UCF can be at the forefront in addressing the economic, societal, cultural, and intellectual needs of our region.

As we survey the rise of UCF, much of our progress can be attributed to the steady pursuit of the five goals that I established when I arrived at UCF in 1992. They are:

  • to offer the best undergraduate education available in Florida
  • to achieve international prominence in key programs of graduate study and research
  • to provide an international focus to our curricula and research programs
  • to become more inclusive and diverse, and
  • to be America's leading partnership university.

These goals continue to serve our metropolitan research university very well, and I hope they will anchor your thinking as you commence your crucial work.

The primary driver of UCF’s advancement is the fifth goal: to be America’s leading partnership university, a phrase we have registered as a trademark.

In my inaugural address in 1992, I said partnerships would be the key to UCF’s becoming a vital force in our community. When I said that, a lot of people probably thought: “That sounds interesting.” But I suspect that a good many folks weren’t sure what being a partnership university really meant, or how our approach would work.

My faith in partnerships is grounded as much in pragmatism as in idealism. It has long seemed to me that no single individual or organization acting alone has the resources to solve the significant problems we face.

Thus, if we want our institutions to offer meaningful societal benefits that compel support, we need to find partners for our efforts.

Real partnerships involve mutual benefit at their cores. Relationships in which one party does all the giving, the other all the taking, are unstable by their nature and end badly. Partnerships are easy to describe and discuss. They’re harder to do. But consider what the power of partnerships can achieve.

Partnerships defined this university from its inception. When money was lacking to buy land for a campus, 89 local leaders and their families pledged nearly $1 million with no guarantee of repayment to secure this property – and to assure a future for the university that they adamantly believed would elevate this region.

Since then, many of the projects and initiatives that most distinguish UCF have involved partnerships. They include:

  • the national-model DirectConnect to UCF program that now guarantees access to graduates from six nearby state colleges;
  • the establishment of the UCF College of Medicine at Lake Nona and the Medical City;
  • the Florida High Tech Corridor, which unites high-tech companies with top talent from UCF, the University of Florida, and the University of South Florida to foster innovations and create well-paying jobs;
  • and the Partnership Buildings I, II, and III in the Central Florida Research Park shared by UCF and the U.S. Department of Defense, which anchor the state’s nearly $5 billion modeling and simulation industry.

Our latest initiatives that stand to shape the future of UCF and this community are also partnership driven. Those include:

  • the Florida Advanced Manufacturing Research Center in Osceola County, which aims to spark  thousands of high-tech jobs in the years ahead;
  • the UCF Downtown campus effort with Valencia College and the City of Orlando;
  • the national University Innovation Alliance, an unprecedented league of 11 large public research universities determined to eliminate family income as a predictor of success in college;
  • and the Florida Consortium of Metropolitan Research Universities in which Florida International University, the University of South Florida, and UCF combine resources to better serve the workforces in Florida’s urban centers.

All these partnerships benefit our Orlando city-state, and they have another common element. They were carefully developed to give UCF a competitive advantage in an area of strategic emphasis.

If you have followed my path to partnerships as the key to distinctive success, you may well have anticipated my mental model of the partnership university. It looks a lot like a 21st-Century version of the land-grant university established by the Morrill Act in 1862.

In a partnership with the states, the Morrill Act gave federal land to each state, “to promote the practical education of the industrial classes on the several pursuits and professions in life.”

Sometime later, legislation authorized the establishment of agricultural experimentation stations and the cooperative extension system.

Land-grant universities, for the first time, combined in one institution the discovery, transmission, and application of knowledge. That combination proved to be a powerful formula for improving the lives of people.

The universities resulting from the Morrill Act transformed this country by delivering university-inspired innovations to the marketplace, where they could do the most good in bettering lives.

Let us fast-forward to today. Like the land-grant universities of the 19th century, UCF and other metropolitan research universities are this century’s means to individual advancement and regional economic development.

On many fronts, UCF is well positioned to be a pace-setter for the future of higher education.

In our laboratories and studios, our researchers and students pursue the products, solutions, and innovations that can enable our nation to prosper, to compete, and to advance in a world economy.

My vision for UCF is that we thrive as a metropolitan research university, but that we also excel in providing a strong undergraduate education.

Education transforms lives, and, as a first-generation college student, I am proof of that life-changing process. Before my dad passed away when I was 15, he insisted that I pursue a college education. He didn’t know a whole lot about college. But he knew that better career opportunities and a better life were likely for me if I earned a college degree.

And, without college, I would not have met Martha, my wonderful wife and partner of 53 years. In more ways than he could foresee, Dad was right about college!

When you consider social and economic mobility, it is higher education that allows people of all ages and backgrounds to advance.

With a college education, people are more able to achieve the highest levels that their energy, their ability, and their ambition will permit.

In recently profiling our DirectConnect to UCF program with our state college partners, Politico Magazine concluded that we are creating a seamless pipeline of social mobility.

We know that the children and grandchildren of college graduates are more likely to pursue higher education. In doing so, they contribute to a cycle of prosperity that supplants a cycle of poverty, which limits human potential and increases taxpayer costs.

We know that education also drives the economic mobility of city-states. Central Florida needs the robust talent pipeline that UCF provides to diversify its local economy, to boost the median income, and to add well-paying jobs. High-wage companies and entrepreneurs gravitate to places with a steady supply of top talent.

As with the original land grant universities, we are poised to raise the social, cultural, and material wealth of our Orlando city-state through access to affordable education. As we do so, we seek to reduce – and eventually eliminate – family income as a predictor of college success.

We know that approximately 82 percent of students from the top quartile of family income will graduate with a four-year degree by age 24.

This compares to less than 10 percent from the lowest quartile of family income. This problem is a detriment to the future of our community and of our country, and we’ve got to crack it.

On many fronts, UCF is well positioned to be a pace-setter for the future of higher education.

So how does our bold, young university keep growing in impact? How do we further distinguish UCF as it matures, and how do we best position this university for future greatness?

In the coming months, you have a special opportunity to help answer these key questions and others.

Each of you was invited to participate in this because of your experience, progressive thinking, and civic advocacy. Your thoughtful support is important for UCF to capture the opportunities afforded by strategic planning – and to provide the Collective Impact we seek for UCF’s future.

As we proceed, let me share some of my hopes for what our thoughtful engagement will produce.

Strategic plans, by nature, are works in progress. We need a rolling plan that is flexible and open to modification in the future.

We need a plan that can yield the best results possible given our environment.

We need a plan that can help us derive the greatest possible benefit for our students and for our community by leveraging existing strengths and advantages.

We need a plan that re-examines old assumptions and that looks for new strategic areas where we can prosper and add value to a UCF education, both for our graduates and for the employers we serve.

We need a plan that builds on our winning partnership approach and our commitment to advancing the innovation economy of Central Florida and our Sunshine State.
And we need a plan that can help us become a more agile and nimble university that can adjust on the fly to changing circumstances – such as unpredictable shifts in state support and new developments in the marketplace.

Designing a pathway to our best future will not be easy. We face serious resource challenges, and the road ahead has many obstacles. But UCF people have always risen to the challenge.

Let’s do all we can to advance our great university, and to make it possible for those who come after us to do really great work at UCF.

Thank you for your willingness to reach for the stars and to help UCF stand for opportunity as never before. Enjoy your dinner, Go Knights and … charge on!


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