Ava Parker gets a C. Not for chief operating officer, but for calm, cool and confident. As the executive force behind Florida Polytechnic University, the state’s 12th public university, opening in August, she knows the clock is ticking. Actually the clock sits front and center in their current reception area in Lakeland. Its face reads 115 days to opening.
Parker, an attorney, was brought on by the board of trustees in December 2012 to basically organize the new university.
“We have something called Poly Time, where we have a lot to do in a very short period of time. … We come together as a team,” says Parker.
Her duties include overseeing construction of the campus, hiring faculty and recruiting students, with an eye toward achieving regional accreditation as early as possible. Having served on the Board of Governors since 2002, along with a previous seat on the University of Central Florida’s board of trustees, this native Floridian possesses a keen knowledge of higher education in the state.
“I think that the cool thing about starting from scratch is we don’t have quite as many committees to put a decision through. … Faculty can sit at the table and the whole process is streamlined.”
Approved by the Legislature in 2012, the new school will be Florida’s only polytechnic university with a focus on STEM programs, specifically technology and engineering. The reason behind the university is one of economic development.
“The Legislature looked closely at our economy and what we need. The conversation involved placement of new companies and jobs. We are not retaining high-tech companies because we don’t have the workforce or the research to support them. And it’s from that conversation that we came out with this very unique model of an engineering and innovation technology institution,” Parker explains.
Anyone looking for the status quo need not apply to Florida Poly.
The university is unabashedly entrepreneurial. From its stunning $60 million Santiago Calatrava-designed Innovation, Science and Technology (IST) Building visible from Interstate 4, to its policy of multiyear contracts for faculty in lieu of tenure, the school is cutting edge. Students and faculty with creative, out-of-the-box thinking need apply.
And for the first graduating class of 500, that means a full four-year scholarship for each student. Graduate students are not left out; they will receive full scholarships for their two-year programs. Parker is working with the school’s foundation for funding. Eventually the 172-acre campus will host about 5,000 students. And Parker emphasizes there is value in keeping the student-teacher ratio smaller. “We want to remain a small, high-tech focused institution.”
“We are looking for students who are innovative, who are technology driven, who are entrepreneurial,” said Parker. She explained that the world famous Spanish architect who designed the 162,000-square-foot IST building really sets the stage for the culture of the institution. “It’s a wow building. I think it is helping us to really send a message about what we’re doing and what we are going to offer that is different for our students.”
Florida Poly will offer six degree programs. The College of Innovation and Technology will offer bachelor of science degrees in advanced technology, computer science and information technology and science and technology management, in addition to a master of science in innovation and technology. The College of Engineering will offer bachelor of science degrees in computer engineering, electrical engineering and mechanical and industrial engineering with a master of science in engineering.
To date they have received about 1,300 applications from faculty across the country for 55 positions and just recently announced the university’s first president, Dr. Randy Avent, who has been serving as associate vice chancellor of research development at North Carolina State University. Avent will assume his new position this summer.
The school’s history goes back to 1988 when it began as a satellite campus of the University of South Florida in Tampa and shared its grounds in Lakeland with Polk State College (then Polk Community College). Florida Sen. J.D. Alexander initiated a campaign for Florida Poly to become an independent university. On April 20, 2012, Gov. Rick Scott signed into law Alexander’s budget for the state university system, including a provision that created Florida Poly as an independent institution. The law took effect on July 1, 2012.
“You know Florida Poly is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and I think that I’ve been very fortunate to lead what I consider a historic effort, to really transform the economy of the state. I really see it like that. … I was a former chair of the Board of Governors of the state university system and I am aware of how special our state system is and how unique each university is. But I think this is the time to do something and make a difference. I feel blessed to be a part of this experience, and I’m looking forward to opening the university and seeing the future we’ve envisioned unfold,” says Parker.
Most of the university’s marketing has taken place online, a good place to find like-minded techies. The 5,000-square-foot admissions building opened in December and purple hard hat (the school’s primary color is purple) tours are conducted regularly to showcase the rest of the campus under construction.
In the midst of all the activity, a Chrysler Ram truck commercial was filmed there in late December in front of the striking IST structure and aired in February. A bemused Parker said, “They contacted us for their modern marvel theme. … Unfortunately a lot of people out of state have not figured out it is our institution.”
Not for long. Come August Florida Poly will be ready for its close-up.