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Thad Seymour & UCF’s Downtown Campus

By: Eric Wright

The University of Central Florida (UCF), the state’s largest university, has awarded over 300,000 degrees. Underscoring just how young the institution is, UCF President John Hitt has conferred 80 percent of them. Partnership, which has defined Hitt’s legacy, has also empowered not only the school’s, but the region’s trajectory, as Hitt’s growth objectives for the University have aligned, like light in a laser, with the growth objectives of the region. This includes the impact of the Direct Connect program on the region’s talent pipeline, which is the gold standard of the country, to the Florida High Tech Corridor or the UCF Medical School and the growth of Medical City or BRIDG in Osceola County.

Now UCF is embarking on the “Next Big Thing,” which could well be Hitt’s magnum opus and prove to be one of the most transformational of all, the Downtown UCF campus. It is a testament to the cooperation and shared vision of the school and the city to create a world class 21st century metropolis. To bring that vision into reality, the school tapped one of the area’s most respected thought leaders, whose resume in academia, entrepreneurial endeavors and projects that have a regional, if not a global impact, caused most to think, “But of course.” Thad Seymour.

TO BE OR NOT TO BE
Most would have thought with a Ph.D. in history and being the son of a Rollins College president, he would have pursued a distinguished career in academia, but that wasn’t for Seymour.

“When I give presentations to high school students about career planning, I have a slide titled, ‘Celebrate the Crooked Path,’ because my path has been anything but linear,” Seymour explains. “I started in academia. My dad was a professor turned college administrator, so I grew up on campuses. I taught high school for two years and ended up with a Ph.D. in history. But towards the end of that journey I realized that wasn’t what I was passionate about. Both my wife and I went to business school as a career shift; for me it was because I was intrigued by that world.

“I then went to work for a software company, because the technology fascinated me. We sold that business and then I came back to Florida to do a turnaround and a series of startups in the healthcare IT sector and the specialty pharmacy industry. I was doing M&As, marketing and strategic planning, all of which I enjoy, and Sesh Thakker from Tavistock called. He told me, ‘We’re working on this Medical City project and we’re trying to recruit these major tenants (Nemours, Johnson & Johnson, the VA, Sandford Burman etc.), but we don’t know the language of healthcare; we’re real estate guys.’ I told him, ‘I don’t understand real estate.’ He said, ‘Perfect.’”

That alliance led to one of the most innovative developments in the world and also made Central Florida a player in the healthcare research and delivery debate going on globally. In addition, it demonstrated what the future may hold for live, work and play communities.

Seymour admits he is drawn to big ideas, to see a concept move from notes or drawings on a napkin to reality, and the art and science of regional economic development. Though he does concede he isn’t as motivated by the opportunity to operate or manage something that is up and running.

A NEW DOOR OPENS
According to Seymour, “Big ideas rarely come out of siloes, but rather at the intersection of disciplines, people and institutions.” The Lake Nona project was certainly a blueprint of that approach, bringing together key idea generators from a technological, sociological, economic and architectural/design standpoint. The term he brought into Central Florida’s popular vernacular was, “Medici Effect,” taken from a book title by Fran Johannsson to describe the type of environments where creative collaboration flourishes and areas become hubs for innovation.

After a few years, he felt his work at Lake Nona was concluding and he and his wife were looking forward to the empty nest, travel and new interests. However, the process that produced Lake Nona was an experience that was becoming prototypical for other equally monumental projects. Around that time, he received a call from the UCF Provost Dale Whittaker, who Seymour describes as, “very persuasive and whom I have always liked and respected.” Whittaker was looking for someone to guide the visioning process for the proposed downtown campus, who understood the university, but could bring an outside perspective.

“This was a chance to go in deep with the university and design a process that was very inclusive. There were 40-50 team members in three different commissions, including philosophy, value and distinctive impact, each of which was co-chaired by someone from the university and someone from the community,” Seymour recalled. “In the end, there were over a thousand people that gave input. We listened and then began to synthesize all this input into certain general insights and metrics to measure our future progress.

“We had a series of conversations about the need for a core team to spearhead our efforts to see this to fulfillment, and Dale felt I was best suited to guide that process as vice provost. I was already so impressed with the team UCF had convened, which I knew would make my job a lot easier. It is fun, it is inspirational and we think the impact on the city and the Paramore community will be pronounced.”

THE FULL, THOUGH CROOKED, CIRCLE
It looks like Seymour will finish his career at a place he didn’t initially think he wanted to be. Yet, now he is so enthusiastic about what the new campus will mean, he bought his first vanity license plate.

It is the new and distinctive black and gold UCF plate. His sports the UCF logo next to the letters DNTWN (Downtown).

Seymour is equally exuberant about the effect the university will have on the region. Contrary to what many think, when it comes to the end product, which is filling the talent pipeline, big may be better. “We uncovered a very simple formula as we did our research. Namely that SCALE x EXCELLENCE = IMPACT.

“There were those who raised the question, ‘Are we not at a crossroad, where we have to decide if we are going to be big or we’re going to be good?’ It dawned on us that this was the wrong question. If the purpose of your institution is to have maximum impact, what then are the ingredients? What we realized was they were scale and excellence, not big or little. We then asked, ‘How do you maximize scale in the 21st century along with the student experience to drive the impact you want?’ From the quality of research your faculty and students do, to the impact on the community, we discovered that as excellence and scale converges, as on a graph, the impact only increases.

“I tried this same formula with companies and with countries and the results were identical,” he continued. “A great idea created in a garage is great, but if only a dozen people benefit from the innovation, the impact is minimal. What matters is when it scales, whether it be a country or an Uber, then you have impact. This, I believe, is the next step in the vision that began with the land grant universities in the 19th century — to bring higher education and the opportunity and innovation it generates to the masses.”

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