When it comes to innovation, few educational institutions can rival Full Sail University. Its statement, “Fully immersive from day one,” accurately describes the process by which Full Sail turns aspiring filmmakers, digital artists and a host of other creative and technology oriented students into market-ready and market-leading graduates. The school, which began training individuals for the recording arts industry in 1979 and moved to Central Florida in 1980, mushroomed not only in its growth, but in its reputation for leading edge methodology and outcomes. Isis Jones, Full Sail’s chief information officer and executive director of education, has been a key player in Full Sail’s success. In 2011, she was awarded the “Administrator of the Year” award by the Florida Association of Postsecondary Schools & Colleges.
EW: What drew you to Full Sail?
IJ: I have been here for 28 years and have had a hand in a little bit of everything. Technology has always been my forte; originally I came in as IT Director and was involved in the first digital media program. That spawned many of the other programs, which is how I became more involved on the educational side of the operation. I had a foot in both worlds.
I heard about Full Sail while I was doing some consulting work. The school was very audio focused then and I was deciding where to go next in my career. If I went with Full Sail I knew I would be an IT department of one, versus hundreds. But I was persuaded to come on board for six months to help them out, then hire my replacement. Once I was here I got bitten by the bug. There was so much to do, I came in as IT Director, I was studio manager, for a time I was CFO; it was always challenging, rewarding and such a beautiful concept, I never left.
EW: Explain that ‘beautiful concept?’
IJ: We were providing an education that you couldn’t get in a traditional institution, and we still are. It was very immersive; our founder always believed in emulating the industry. Therefore, the people we attracted, both faculty and students, were so passionate about the subject matter. Nothing ever seemed like work or school, and everyone was symbiotically coming together to do something they loved. It was challenging and contagious; the technology was constantly changing.
As we grew into a university, there were new challenges. How do we continue to train the way we do, while adhering to all the compliance and accreditation issues? All of us pretty much grew up together – in fact, all the top VPs have been here around 15 years. We are more like a big family. The energy to always be innovative and creative, but to maintain that relational orientation, was something we never lost.
EW: What has surprised you the most?
IJ: How much joy I get out of being able to live vicariously through the success of our graduates – that is, who most of my best friends are. Also, I never thought we would one day have a staff of 2,200, nor did I think if we grew like that we would still have that same feel we had when we were much smaller, but we do.
We have also been able to maintain a creative nimbleness and pace, where people can innovate or change the curriculum quickly to adapt to changing trends or technology. Most educational institutions can’t do that, nor should they. If you are teaching violin or ballet you don’t want to change certain things. Here, we embrace the freedom of rapid change.
EW: Full Sail is a private, for profit university. How does that provide you with flexibility?
IS: In a way, it makes us very product-oriented and as such, also very student-oriented. It isn’t about the faculty’s accolades; it is about the students’ accomplishments. Like any school, we comply with all the requirements for accreditation, but the amount of capital we invest and how we invest it would be very difficult to do otherwise.
Don’t get me wrong; we were not for profit for almost 15 years! (Laughing) We borrowed money from friends, family and everyone else. But once we passed that tipping point, there came a freedom to do a lot of things that a typical school couldn’t do.
EW: Does anyone else, using this model, do what you do on this scale?
IS: There are a number of really good institutions that focus on one aspect of what we do, like animation or gaming, but not the scope and variety of what we have under one roof. They also don’t necessarily offer baccalaureate or master’s degree programs. We are constantly looking for where the jobs are and a good area to focus in on.
EW: What differentiates your faculty?
IS: Our faculty stays current because they come from the industry and they are tech junkies to begin with. We do a lot of research projects, like a typical university, but it isn’t required of faculty. Sometimes industry or even a university will approach us about doing a proof of concept because of our subject expertise. One of our film teachers recently traveled to Hawaii to work on Jurassic Park. She then came back to the classroom to impart all that excitement and experience.
EW: How does the dynamic of being married to the university’s president work?
IS: Our approach is to divide and conquer. We’ll go days where we aren’t in a meeting together. Also, Garry is one of the easiest guys in the world to get along with. We both bring different things to the table. He brings his love of the students and the culture of Full Sail, whereas I am more the introvert, behind the scenes, “the geek in a dress.”
EW: If you were talking to the EDC or Central Florida Partnership about how to retain the talent pool Full Sail sends around the world, what would you say?
IS: That is one of the reasons why we were excited about OrlandoiX and David Glass’ vision. There is so much opportunity in Central Florida, but the awareness doesn’t validate what is already here. Not just Full Sail, but neighboring universities that focus on technology. When you think about the next hub of innovation and technology, like Austin, and with Miami making the Top 5 list, I think we have a lot more going for us. Both in terms of cost of living and lifestyle, for young startups and young people.
These industries are rather siloed in this area, but there is tremendous crossover. If we were more collaborative, we could bring more businesses and venture capitalists here. Also, we have launched an Innovation and Entrepreneurship degree program. Not only are we training the technologists who do the incredibly creative work so they can get jobs, but also those who want to turn ideas into a business, who then want to hire our graduates.