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Up Close with UCF’s President Dr. John Hitt

“Simply stated, I believe Walt Disney and John Hitt have done more to transform Central Florida into a vibrant, dynamic place than any two people.” — Gov. Jeb Bush
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“Simply stated, I believe Walt Disney and John Hitt have done more to transform Central Florida into a vibrant, dynamic place than any two people.”    — Gov. Jeb Bush                                                      

An amazing sentiment, but one that is echoed by leaders across nearly every sector in the region. John Hitt’s influence and vision can be seen in major enterprises that have and are shaping our collective future from Medical City, to helping make I-4 Florida’s High Tech Corridor. Not to mention that during his administration, UCF has grown from the fifth largest university in Florida, to the second largest in the country. 

The great leaders however don’t just grow their organizations, they change the culture and the DNA of a region. Hitt’s initiative to make UCF “America’s Partnership University” is a philosophical strategy that has facilitated an atmosphere of cooperation and inclusiveness which is defining and impacting every business and community organization in the area.

In 1992 when I became UCF’s fourth President, I wish I had known…

Back in the day Bob Seger had a song on his Against the Wind album with the lyric, “Wish I didn’t know now what I didn’t know then.” It sort of underscores that there are definitely two ways to look at what you wish you knew.

I think if I had to pick one thing, I would sight the need for disciplined communication. At universities, academics are pretty good at spinning out ideas and believing it will just take hold based on its merit. Sometimes that happens, but it happens more if you have a professional and disciplined communications strategy so that everyone hears about it. Someone told me, when I first introduced the Five Goals and was wondering how to sell them, “When you’re sick of talking about them, then you are just getting started.” We have done well in our communication, but I think we could have done better.

The big thing you learn when you become president is that you are everybody’s president. You can’t pick and choose what you are going to be responsible for; when you’re the president you are president
of everything.

The source of the Five Goals                                                                                              

I was in a discussion with a good friend back at the University of Maine; he was a retired rear admiral and we were talking about goals after we had completed a strategic planning process. I said, “I’m not sure we have any goals.” He replied, “What do you mean, we have about 30 goals!” and I said, “That’s exactly what I mean.”

If a goal is a statement that would consciously guide your behavior, if you can’t remember it, then that isn’t a very functional goal. Who can remember 30 goals?  Maybe if you have a disciplined management system, you could do a checklist, daily, weekly or monthly. But for universities and most organizations, when the question, “Where are we going?” comes up, then a short list, which people can remember, can debate and maybe be influenced by serves you much better.

He later came back to me and showed me the five to eight goals the new president at Ohio State, Gordon Gee had done. When I became interim president I wrote five goals specific to the University of Maine. Soon I began hearing them repeated. That gave the idea some priority.  When I came here I had five, because I couldn’t get it down to three.  Five to seven is the span of the immediate memory.

On adding more

If I were to add another, it would probably have to do with innovation and self-organizing groups. I see on our campus innovative initiatives that are being led by the students. These young people see something that needs to be done and they self-organize to see it realized; my challenge is how do we seed that type of action for the future? Like the prosthetic arms Limbitless created.

The Importance of College Accessibility and Inclusion

The university opened my mind to a world I didn’t know even existed. People have asked me if I always wanted to be a university president. Frankly, when I was young I had no idea what a college or university president did.

My own experience made me sensitive to the needs and struggles people have. I went from Tulane, to Texas Christian and then to Bradley, but when I went to the University of Maine I saw a lot of students who came from more economically modest families, much more representative of the nation. That impacted me.

The Theme of Partnership

I had done some relatively large scale projects, for my place in the world, where it was clear that if we could enlist partners that had resources and ideas we could do more in partnership than we could afford to do alone, like big computer projects. I became convinced that if you wanted to address large scale problems, collaboration was essential. Some have a hard time seeing that and would rather have 100 percent of that, verses 25 percent of this much larger pie.

This region and the university already had some great partnering experiences when I came. What I realized was that if you can see a way to move an organization forward by enlisting someone who is already doing something pretty well, then encourage them or reward them to utilize their expertise, a lot can be accomplished. That way you aren’t asking people to climb Mt. Everest in street shoes.

Specifics that Built Momentum

We were able to address a problem with our enrollment procedures. The way we worked through that made it clear I wasn’t in an organization where you had huge egos that had to be protected, that gave me a lot of courage in moving ahead.

Then we focused on building a more equitable funding stream for the university. We were the worst funded campus in the system, and were able to pull together an analysis which showed that. Because the board of regents were sympathetic to Central Florida and to the university we were able to get a funding package put together that gave us $17 million over a couple of years. That was a lot of money at that time and we went from having no money to do much of anything, to having the funds to spend on hiring new faculty and to refurbish some of our labs and infrastructure.

So then we had a rising enrollment base with increasing quality, we had the money to equip classrooms and that created a cascade of decisions and events that really provided us with a lot of momentum.

The Benefits of His Background

I wasn’t a clinician, I was trained in physiological psychology, which causes you to think in terms of systems. If you understand positive and negative feedback and you understand how variables affect behavior or physiology and that becomes an ingrained habit, to look for those relationships and to think on those terms in systems management, it can help you a lot.

Never Give Up, Unless…

It is easy to quit, but there are times when you need to say, “Well this isn’t going to happen, at least not now and if I continue to focus on that, there are other things I could do that won’t get done.” But I quit reluctantly and I don’t take on big projects unless I think they are very important.

The dental school was one such idea. We proposed a dental school that would cost the state nothing and we were turned down. Not every idea and not every good idea works out and you have to say “Not now, perhaps not ever, but definitely not now.” If you push too hard, you end up making a pest of yourself and people aren’t interested in listening to your ideas.

I always approach large projects carefully, because I don’t want people to invest their resources and then on reflection say, “I know what he was trying to accomplish, but that was a waste of my resources.” The key is identifying what is really important and then asking how to interest other people in accomplishing it. You don’t want everything to go your way all the time, because not everything you want to do is right or at the right time. But you have to get enough common direction so you build forward motion.

The Future of Education

One promising innovation is we finally have the power of computing, data storage and software where we can watch what the student’s response is and identify what they missed. Thus we identify what is causing them to fail to master a particular subject, like algebra, at a specific point in the learning process. The software sends the students back to what they missed and you can do that without the aid of very expensive humans. Thus, you are able to teach students exactly what they need to succeed.

A major barrier to student success, in many disciplines, is math. If we can find a way to teach kids math on the first or second pass, we will remove a huge bottleneck in education. In some subjects like calculus, you sometimes have non-completion rates of up to 50 percent. When you think how much that costs and realize you could instead invest in effective software and hardware, your results can be dramatic.

What should never change is universities should always provide the opportunity for students to get to know scholars, professionals who are experts in a field and see their minds at work. That is part of what makes a university education so special. When I was a sophomore in college I took a course in psychology, volunteered in a lab and that is where I began to see what it all meant.


This article appears in the December 2015 issue of i4 Business.
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