With their hands on the wheel and their eyes on the future, presidents Judy Genshaft and John Hitt are steering their universities toward economic greatness.
Ask Dr. Judy Genshaft how she feels about the University of South Florida being described nationally as “emerging,” and her response is immediate and enthusiastic.
“My feeling is that it’s fabulous,” says the USF president, now in her 13th year at the helm. “I love having that kind of recognition.
“For us to be an up and comer, I think people look at us as vibrant, as innovative and having a lot of synergy. So, I’ve always viewed that as a very positive comment.”
Similarly, University of Central Florida President Dr. John Hitt, who arrived in March 1992, stands tall in full view of UCF’s comparatively short history. Hitt is all about today and tomorrow. And he likes where UCF is headed. He even mentions the word “Disney”—as in a potential Disneyesque impact on the region from what he cites as a top UCF achievement, Lake Nona’s ascending medical city.
“People have compared it to Disney,” he says. “I’m not sure of that. Who knows? But it certainly has the potential to make a big change.”
The point is, while still lifting themselves up into the rarified economic air of what Hitt calls “our flagship university”—in Gainesville—both USF and UCF have ample reasons to rejoice. Oh, and by the way, their optimism goes beyond the fact that UCF has 60,000-plus students—second most nationally—and the USF System has more than 47,000 students. Mere size doesn’t begin to tell the story of where the universities are, or are going.
Rising economic prominence? You bet.
For Genshaft, few advances made by her university make her happier than research, where USF is beginning to keep some very fast company. “Now that USF has hit the top 50 of all research universities, whether they be public or private, it’s really an incredible achievement,” she says. “We would say to Harvard or Stanford or the University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill or Ohio State, move over and give us some room. The University of South Florida is here, too.”
Only one other university in the state, she points out, conducts more research: the University of Florida. And she adds that USF ranks 10th worldwide among universities granted U.S. patents. Plus, USF is No. 6 in terms of highest endowments of all public universities founded since 1900.
“While still lifting themselves up, both USF and UCF have ample reasons to rejoice. And mere size doesn’t begin to the the story of where the universities are, or are going.”
Genshaft, though, isn’t particularly moved by current rankings, which she refers to as a “way to look at your own institution and see how it compares with others that have similar missions.” She is more interested in what lies ahead. “We are just going to keep our institution focused, moving forward,” she says.
“Overall, as I look at the University of South Florida, I see such great advancement.”
One of most substantial areas is in economic development. Genshaft is a familiar face on several regional boards and commissions. Not coincidentally, she wants USF to be an economic catalyst for both Tampa Bay and the state. “The responsibility of a public university is to educate the students but also to be one of the economic engines for our communities; that is part of our responsibility,” she explains.
According to Genshaft, USF garners $411 million annually in grants and contracts, which ultimately leads to local jobs. And, from published data, USF has an annual economic impact of $3.7 billion. “It’s a big synergy that we have,” she cites.
For economic impact at UCF, no need to look further than Lake Nona, of course, where roughly $2 billion has already been invested since 2005. The concept of the medical city began when the Tavistock Group, a land developer, donated $12.5 million and 50 acres to UCF to help establish a medical school. The landscape now is rife with collaboration, and UCF’s College of Medicine serves as an anchor. By the end of 2017, the medical city is projected to generate 30,000 jobs and an annual $7.6 billion economic benefit for the region.
Of the setting, which Hitt has been widely praised for ensuring success, he says, “It is unusual, and in many ways remarkable.”
Actually, Hitt’s fingerprints on the economic wheel can be traced back to just after his arrival in Orlando. Driving along Interstate 4 to Tampa reminded him of his home state. “I grew up in Texas, and I watched Dallas and Fort Worth grow together,” he says. “What I saw along I-4 was not that different than what I saw happening along the highway between Dallas and Fort Worth. We’re headed in that direction.”
Hitt called then-USF President Betty Castor, and later they formed the 23-county Florida High Tech Corridor Council, which UF subsequently joined. The result: more than 3,200 jobs with a direct and indirect economic benefit of $1.3 billion in the past 17 years.
Such synergy between UCF and USF might surprise, especially this time of year, when talk of football surfaces. Through the years, the Knights and Bulls have developed a spirited sports rivalry, and for the first time the two will square off in football Nov. 29 as members of the newly formed American Athletic Conference. Hitt hopes to keep the battles on the playing field: “We want to have a great rivalry, on the field. What I don’t want, and I don’t think anybody really does at this point, is a sort of destructive rivalry.”
Hitt points to a State University System of Florida Board of Governors’ meeting earlier in the summer, where he and Genshaft dined together along with their respective provosts. “We talked about how we could cooperate to get program funding that would benefit both institutions,” he says.
Common goals? Indeed. Separately, however, there is much work to do. Up and coming, after all, means you’re not quite there yet.
Regarding the economy, for example, Genshaft seeks to continue a focus on creating regional partnerships by leveraging patents and licenses to spur spin-off companies, commenting, “Nowadays, nothing happens on your own. You need to form partnerships, whether it be with corporations or other universities or other countries.”
She adds that although research activity is strong, “we can always grow in our research,” which would foster even more partnerships.
Also, Genshaft, who has personally given substantial amounts of money toward student study abroad, seeks to maintain a global business approach for students. “It’s very important that we are educating our students to have tolerance, understanding and respect for other people and other cultures,” she says. “Once they graduate, they may be employed by multinational companies, and they need to have that background, the wherewithal, to be able to interact with diverse groups of people and nations.
“It’s not the company’s responsibility to do the educating, it’s really higher education that needs to do that kind of training.”
“If you think about the kind of problems that you want to be able to take on, your chances of being successful are just a whole lot higher if you do partnerships.”
– John Hitt
For Hitt, the topic of partnerships is particularly near and dear. Among his initial goals in office was to help UCF become “America’s leading partnership university.” He is still championing that cause.
“If you think about the kind of problems that you want to be able to take on, your chances of being successful are just a whole lot higher if you do partnerships,” he describes. “You just don’t have the resources that you need if you’re out there by your lonesome.”
Mostly, and very much related to that ideal, Hitt is thinking research funding. It’s a real challenge. “We need to light a fire,” he concedes, while quickly adding that it’s not about effort. Two years ago, research funding stood at $130 million but declined to $120 million a year ago and fell off again this year.
While faculty members are working hard to teach and write research proposals, there simply aren’t enough of them. “We are wearing them [faculty] out. If we’re going to make the kind of progress I believe we really need to, we’ve got to have either fewer students or find a way to get more faculty members. We need more faculty members,” Hitt says.
His interim research mark—a stretch goal, he calls it—is $200 million in funding. And he believes it’s doable, citing a recent $55 million grant from NASA. “We have good opportunities; we just need more of them,” he says.
Clearly, rising to the top is not easy.
At the same time, for Genshaft and Hitt, there are no signs of their climbs slowing. Each is buoyed by capital campaigns, with USF planning to celebrate successful completion next year while UCF is in the midst and on target.
Agendas remain lengthy.
“What I try to do as president is make sure the institution is positioned for as many opportunities as possible,” Genshaft says in conclusion. “And I want to make sure it has the kind of substance and status that allows for the kind of economic development that the state and the region needs.”
Hitt, who celebrated UCF’s 50th birthday in June and is more than two decades into his tenure, shrugs off any thought of coasting into retirement. “That,” he says with a wince, “would be a horrible way to end my career.”
The Rest Of The Story… More About The Presidents
Q&A with USF President Dr. Judy Genshaft
”There are many. I don’t know if one stands out. Overall, as I look at the University of South Florida, I see such great advancement. We’re now up in the rankings so high, and I’m very proud in all that we’ve accomplished.”
What is your perspective of preeminence?
“We are just going to keep our institution focused, moving forward and bringing all of our measured areas toward the American Association of Universities’ eligibility standards.”
Your thoughts about the Florida High Tech Corridor Council?
“The Florida High Tech Corridor Council has been very helpful in making sure that this whole region—Tampa, Orlando and Gainesville—brings new industry in and helps to grow current industry. It’s been a very, very positive move economically and entrepreneurially for the state of Florida.”
More about USF on the international front (aside from what is mentioned in the print article):
“USF does much research internationally. International research going on in juvenile diabetes, or type 1, throughout the world, with studies developed at USF. We have also been involved with global water issues and malaria.
“One half of USF’s faculty does international research. Most of that research is funded by outside sources, like firms or federal funds. There is just a tremendous amount of synergy around the world.”
What has been the most gratifying?
My favorite events are graduation—when students reach their goal. Also, we will be celebrating in coming year the achievement of a fundraising goal of $600 million [capital campaign]. We celebrate each time we achieve these goals that we put in front of us. But then we know there’s always another one behind that, which we will have to strive for and reach. That’s the way life is, and that’s how we get better. Never give up; always move forward.”
What is something that people do not know about you?
“I love to zip line. I’ve zip lined across Victoria Falls in Africa. And in Alaska. That is really, really fun.”
Q&A with UCF President Dr. John Hitt
What is the proudest achievement during your 21-year tenure?
“Getting the medical school up and running. Who knows the future, but right now that’s the answer. If you look at the difficulty in getting it done, and the way it changes how the university is perceived in academics as well as in other circles, it was the biggest achievement. It’s potentially the anchor for the medical city. “That [med city] is potentially a totally game changing kind of development for all of Central Florida.”
Your thoughts about UF following UCF and USF in the Florida High Tech Corridor Council:
“When [UF President} Bernie Machen came in, he, I think, perceived correctly that UF needed to think more about the metropolitan area.”
Your thoughts about university rankings?
“Rankings, generally, reflect the values of the people who put them together. That being said, we have excellent rankings in education, and I’m very proud of them. Largely, UCF suffers because it’s young, under-funded and doesn’t have a large endowment.”
What do you think about UF pursuing Top 10 status as a public research university?
“I think that’s great if Florida gets into the top 10. They’re our flagship university. Some people don’t like to say that or hear it, but they are our flagship university.
“That probably does reflect well on all of us. I think it’s good for the state. I don’t resent it in any way.
“The good thing is, in Florida when there’s something like this created, somebody gets money right out of the box, and within one, two, three years then others get the same thing.”
About universities as economic drivers:
“I just think if you look at the modern world, you don’t find successful city-state economies that don’t have a major research university. And, if we know we’re that essential to the success, we ought to be intentional about it.”
What has been the most challenging part of the job?
“Lots of people and moving parts. Try to have balance in your life. “Don’t find yourself a sprinter in a long-distance race.
“You have to learn what you can do, and you’ve got to learn to balance your own life. And you have to learn what you can reasonably expect others to do.”
“You love the success of others.”
What is something that people do not know about you?
“I’m pretty boring. I grew up in a working-class family and was one of those kids whose life was transformed. I also helped to start the first American university in an iron curtain country, Bulgaria. Who would have thought a barefooted kid from Houston would end up having dinner with the president of Bulgaria on one side and George Soros on the other side.” (Soros is a Hungarian-American business magnate, investor and philanthropist.)