UNF looks to bright future by building on strong foundation

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There was no Student Union back then. Or Student Wellness Complex, the Biological Sciences Building, the Fine Arts Center or the Arena.

 

There wasn’t even an osprey — either on the logo or roaming the campus as a mascot.

 

There was Building 1, now known as J.J. Daniel Hall, and a lot of trees.

 

When the University of North Florida opened its doors in 1972, most of the landmarks, events and cultural touchstones now associated were not even a twinkle in a campus planner’s eye. There weren’t even any undergraduate courses.

 

Fast forward 40 years, and the UNF campus is hardly recognizable to the original students, faculty and staff who made their mark on the sandy tract of land that has become Northeast Florida’s preeminent destination for higher education.

  

The early years 

 

More than 16,500 students now occupy the 1,381-acre campus located in the midst of a nature preserve and wildlife sanctuary on Jacksonville’s Southside.

 

It’s a far cry from the early days. UNF opened its doors in 1972 with about 2,000 upper-division and master’s students. Founded primarily as a commuter finishing school to work cooperatively with the Northeast Florida region’s community colleges, it took years before the campus started to grow into the thriving, four-year University it has become. For that first year, the average age of the faculty — about 29-year-old —was about two years younger than that of the students they were teaching.

 

Getting to that first day, however, was an extended process. Jacksonville was the last metropolitan city of its size in the country to establish a state university, and many in the region weren’t sold on the idea at first. Jacksonville University administrators verbalized their disapproval about the possible competition presented by an upstart University located nearby. Some early supporters actually preferred establishing a branch of the University of Florida instead of founding an autonomous university. Jacksonville City Council members debated site selection for some time, discussing the merits of jumpstarting downtown urban renewal through higher education or choosing a more rural location to cater to the expanding suburbs.

 

Once the site was chosen, the grounds were cleared and the facilities built, there still wasn’t much to see on UNF’s opening day. There was a library, which is now Founders Hall, an administrative building and two classroom buildings standing nakedly in an open space surrounded by palmettos, scrub oaks and pine trees. Walkways were unpaved.

 

Heavy rains made much of the campus muddy. Landscaping was nonexistent. Food service came from vending machines. Campus life included wild pigs, deer, turkeys, armadillos, snakes, bears, ospreys and the occasional alligator. Dr. Dale Clifford, a founding faculty member who retired this year, said despite those somewhat primitive surroundings, she remembers fondly those early days. A young, female faculty member in a male-dominated field, she strove to chart an academic course for a budding University and her gender.

 

Her similarly youthful colleagues were a great resource in those early days. They’d meet often to talk shop over a beer at the old Boathouse, one of the early construction projects that earned its name by virtue of being located on a lakefront spit of land.

 

“It was a good congregation point for us to get together and discuss what was or wasn’t working in our classrooms,” she said. “Many of us were quite new, so any kind of insight into the day-to-day work was useful. We all started to make more sense of what the University was and what it could be in those gatherings.”

 

 A vision for the future 

 

As the months and years rolled on, the vision for the University became clearer. Under the watchful eye of Thomas G. Carpenter, UNF’s first president, and his founding academic deans — Ellis White, Willard Ash and James Parrish, the University started to come into its own through the targeted selection of skilled faculty from some of the best college programs across the country.

 

Another key figure in those early years was Andrew Robinson, UNF’s first African-American administrator. Robinson, who later became interim president after Carpenter stepped down, used his post as assistant dean to Ellis White to bolster the faculty ranks even further with gifted instructors who possessed the drive to make UNF a nationally respected institution. His mantra for selecting academic personnel, a standard that remains to this very day, was simple — he wanted to hire faculty who were “people of good will” and could provide strong leadership for a budding institution.

 

After 1984, hiring became an even more important focus. That year, freshman and sophomores were first admitted to the University. The following year, Osprey Village, the first on-campus housing facility, opened. And in 1989, the next phase of UNF’s development began with the arrival of President Adam Herbert. His vision was clear — UNF’s statewide reputation of being a “sleepy” commuter institution needed to be updated.Herbert came with a plan to wake up the campus community and put the University on the track to statewide prominence. That plan involved doubling enrollment over a 10-year period to 14,000 students. To survive and thrive, UNF needed to become a traditional residential institution, not to the exclusion of commuter students, but to build a reputation as one of the “three or four most selective public universities in the state.” 

 

His method for growth was tied to expansion — at the athletic, academic and campus infrastructure levels. He ushered in men’s and women’s basketball and oversaw the construction of the Arena in 1993. During his presidency, the curriculum was improved with foreign languages beyond Spanish and French, physics, philosophy and an enhanced engineering program. He supported expanding international studies, the honors programs and classical music offerings. New programs meant hiring more faculty and finding more dollars for faculty research. Funding came from both public and private sources, thanks in part to a more aggressive pursuit of generous donors in the region by Institutional Advancement. Around that time, UNF built the Arena, student housing, the University Center and the new College of Business Administration Building, which was dedicated in 1997 and re-named the Coggin College of Business in 2002. Herbert also began the planning to expand the Brooks College of Health and Carpenter Library and wanted to build the Fine Arts Center and the engineering/physics building.

 

The growth period was unprecedented, but the University’s commitment to the region and to the quality of its academic offerings stayed true to the initial vision of its founders.

   

The current state of campus 

 

Much has changed throughout the past four decades, but UNF has never strayed too far from its roots. The University has made a national name for itself through its dedication to small class sizes, individualized attention for students and hands-on learning in and out of the classroom.

 

A driving force behind the institutional emphasis on hands-on learning is the University’s Transformational Learning Opportunity (TLO) program. Transformational learning opportunities can take any number of forms  — study abroad experiences, service learning projects, research opportunities with faculty members, internships or directed independent studies. These unique and engaging educational opportunities are designed to broaden and deepen students’ intellectual and worldviews within a course or extend beyond the framework of a specific course. The University’s Board of Trustees allocates several hundred thousand dollars each year to support student engagement in TLOs. Grants are available, opening up the chance for students to excel beyond the confines of traditional college coursework.

 

That commitment to academic excellence has been rewarded with scores of national college rankings and placements on some very prominent university lists. 

 

Current President John A. Delaney, who became UNF’s fifth president in 2003, has presided over a period of growth that has rocketed the University into the state — and national — conversation for public universities.

 

Each year, about 4,000 students graduate from UNF’s five colleges. Those graduates have helped push UNF’s annual economic impact to close to the $1 billion mark. Since 2003, the University’s privately funded endowment has nearly doubled and The Power of Transformation campaign continues toward its multi-million dollar goal in fundraising.  

 

The current administration has also overseen a massive spate of campus construction, rivaling the building boom of Herbert’s presidency, that includes close to a dozen new facilities in the past decade. Since 2008, the University has opened the $86 million Osprey Fountains residence hall, the $50 million Student Union, the $27 million College of Education and Human Services Building, the $39 million Biological Science Building, the almost $20 million Student Wellness Complex and the $13 million Osprey Dining Facility. All of the new buildings reflect UNF’s commitment to the environment through Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design certification from the U.S. Green Building Council.  

 

The physical changes to the campus landscape are truly astounding to many former students.

 

Kelly Otte, a ’94 M.P.A. alumna, remembers a University that was gradually becoming more than a commuter campus. After a recent visit to drop off her son Alex for the start of his freshman year, Otte was blown away by a University that has long since shed any vestiges of that commuter label.

 

“I haven’t been on campus in a really long time, and I was definitely lost at first,” said Otte, who now works as the executive director of the PACE Center for Girls in Tallahassee. “The UNF I knew had a different feel — it was definitely sleepier. When I was there, the Boathouse was the spot to hang out, and it was this teeny building off to the side of campus. Now, it’s in this beautiful glass Student Union Building and students are everywhere.”

 

Otte said Alex was also accepted to Florida State University, but he was drawn to UNF’s on-campus amenities and emphasis on small class sizes and student engagement. He’s now a legacy student, a thought that made Otte a little misty-eyed.

 

“I had such an emotional reaction to the whole thing — seeing the new campus and dropping him off for his first year,” she said. “As an alum, I was super excited he was going there and that UNF was his top choice. Between FSU and UNF, there wasn’t much of a stretch because they’re both top-level schools. I have this sense of pride and joy for him and for my alma mater. I want to write a letter to President Delaney and thank him for what he’s done.”

 

In the President’s own words, it’s been “a heck of a ride.”

 

“There’s been no more invigorating experience in my professional career than in watching UNF’s growth,” Delaney said. “This anniversary is a special one because it allows us the opportunity to take a look back and take stock of where we’ve come from. As the campus has matured and found its place in the regional community, UNF has never lost sight of what makes it great — its strong commitment to an excellent academic experience for all of its students. We’ve grown tremendously, but we’ve never placed the needs of expansion before the needs of our students. And as we celebrate this anniversary, we can stand true to our vision statement in that we will continue to aspire to be a leading public institution of higher learning that will serve the North Florida region at a level of national quality. With that said, there’s a lot to be excited about in the future.”

 

Keys for growth: Boosting the academic profile and fostering retention 

 

There is no better metric to track UNF’s evolution than the steady rise of the University’s academic profile for incoming freshmen.

 

The typical UNF freshman boasts a 3.9 high school GPA and tops the 1208 mark on the SATs, and it is expected that profile will continue its upward trend in the next five to 10 years. That’s good news for the alumni population, considering that steady growth will boost the long-term value of their degrees. Campus demographics also reflect a transition into a far more diverse community. There are more minority students on campus than ever before, and the University has done well recruiting students from outside the region and country. At the same time, UNF is placing an increased focus on making sure those same students receive their diplomas in the suggested four-year period.

 

“It’s a difficult cycle we’ve encountered,” Delaney said. “We’ll have many dedicated, driven students choose UNF for their general education classes, and then they transfer to another state university to close out their undergraduate degrees. It’s an unfortunate reality the University has been fighting against since long before I came on board. But we’re making strides to close that gap.”

 
UNF’s current four-year graduation rates place the University firmly in the middle of the other State University System schools, but UNF wants to do much better. Plans are in place to boost the four- and six-year graduation rates by 2015. At the same time, the campus is focused on hitting the 25,000-student enrollment mark in the future.

 

“We’re going forward with a tricky balancing act, trying to grow the student population while ensuring they’re getting their degrees at the end of their studies,” he said. “It’s about making sure we’re providing the best academic experience possible for our students, from freshman to senior year.”

 

The Freshman Experience and the future of campus life 

Aiding in the quest to improve graduation and retention is the Freshman Experience program. The University now requires incoming freshmen to live on campus, although there are exceptions for older and married students, as well as those demonstrating financial or family-related hardships. With that new requirement in place, the University is striving to reinvigorate the on-campus culture and eliminate the outmoded belief that UNF is a commuter school through the introduction of more concerts, sporting events, campus recreation and intramural activities.

 

Dr. Jeff Coker, UNF’s dean of Undergraduate Studies, said multiple studies and statistics indicate younger students who live on campus are more engaged in the college environment and are more equipped to graduate in four years than those who commute or attend school part-time.

 

“There’s a book, ‘Crossing the Finish Line: Completing College at America’s Public Universities,’ in which the authors show through their research that there are great advantages to living on campus,” Coker said. “They do better in class, they’re more engaged with their peers and they’re more likely to succeed within our four-year university structure.”

 

Dr. Mark Workman, UNF’s provost, said mandatory housing is a necessary step in the University’s evolution considering many other preeminent Universities, including some of the schools UNF includes in its list of peer-aspirant institutions, required first-year housing at some point in their existence. He views the on-campus housing mandate as a necessary step to improve graduation and retention rates while creating a more robust campus-life environment that will be a major draw for both traditional and non-traditional students.

 

“We’ve made tremendous headway over the years creating an environment that is truly a destination school for many and not just a means of entry to another school,” Workman said. “If the economy wouldn’t have been as bad as it was the past few years, we could’ve continued to grow our numbers and reach our enrollment goals earlier. But we willingly reduced enrollment for a time to weather the economic difficulties and maintain our smaller class sizes and general level of academic excellence. Through smart financial shepherding by the administration, UNF is positioned to continue that strong academic trajectory.”

 

Flagships charting the future course 

In the next five to 10 years, Workman said to expect an expansion of existing programs, especially within each of the six designated Flagship programs — Coastal Biology, International Business, Music, Nursing, Nutrition and Dietetics and Transportation and Logistics. That includes more courses taught by a steadily growing list of respected faculty and a greater number of degree options, including graduate and doctoral offerings, within the programs.

 

Florida’s increased emphasis on STEM degrees — science, technology, engineering and mathematics — fits in well with the current direction of the University’s Flagship programs and the needs of the regional workforce, Workman said. The heath-care and bioscience industry is booming in Northeast Florida. There are plans to increase academic offerings in those areas, including the introduction of a proposed Doctorate in Clinical Nutrition, which would be only the second such program in the country. Meanwhile, one of UNF’s most high-profile, recent faculty hires, Dr. Don Resio, is working to obtain research projects and grants to pair with compatible UNF professors. It’s an academic model Workman said to expect more of in the future.

 

Resio, a seasoned engineering and oceanography researcher who now serves as the director of the Taylor Engineering Research Institute, will leverage UNF’s academic strength to bring more research projects and grants to campus. He said his focus is on breaking down any barriers between students and research, allowing undergraduate and graduate students alike the opportunity to receive their own hands-on learning experiences.

 

The point of all these initiatives, Workman said, is targeted growth. By highlighting certain degree programs that mesh well with the regional economy, he said the University will see internship and job-placement rates rise for current students and graduates from those disciplines.

 

Workman described the concept as mission fulfillment without succumbing to mission creep.

 

“As the University continues to grow, we must always adhere to the tenets illustrated in the mission and vision statements,” Workman said. “Instead of expanding that vision, or creeping that mission ahead, we must stay true to providing that national-level quality academic experience to the regional community.”

 

BOT chair looks to the future 

 

Before Dr. Bruce Taylor, CEO and chairman of Taylor Engineering Inc., became chair of the UNF Board of Trustees, he was impressed with UNF’s steady development. Now, in his third term as board chair, he’s proud to have left his mark on a thriving University.

 

When Taylor was first appointed to the board in 2003 by then Gov. Jeb Bush, UNF was entering a transitional period. The University is now positioning itself for continuing state and national prominence.

 

“We’re at a tipping point, a coming-of-age, for lack of a better term,” Taylor said. “We’re going deeper than being just a great undergraduate institution and drilling down into what we’re great at from a national perspective.”

 

He said the University’s Flagship programs and continued focus on student TLOs has allowed UNF to carve out a distinct niche for itself within the State University System. And Taylor himself is leading the charge for growth through his on-campus Taylor Engineering Research Institute, which is headed up by Resio. The institute was created through a $1 million gift from Taylor Engineering, which the state increased to $1.5 million.

 

Taylor said the goal beyond the institute was to bring together people from different backgrounds —academics, industry and government — to promote a new process-driven educational experience for students. He already has a scholarship program that funds students from the Coastal Biology program, and he said he wants to bring together other students to form interdisciplinary teams and expand UNF’s research portfolio. 

 

“You take good people and put them in a position to do good work while providing an exciting learning opportunity for the students,” Taylor said. “At the same time, you take the money to attract some well-regarded researchers and professors who can gain some more recognition for the University, that’s really the main goal behind the institute. The strategic plan should be that same way for any similar centers the University obtains in the future.”

 

It’s a critical academic hub for coastal research, especially in a state where 77 percent of the population lives in coastal counties, but it’s importance runs even deeper than its academic application.

 

Since it was funded by a gift from Taylor Engineering, the University received a dynamic research center for minimal cost at a difficult financial period for higher education. As budgets have tightened and funding has diminished, gifts such as the one from Taylor can help plot the path for a University even in the most trying of financial times, said Shari Shuman, vice president of Administration and Finance.

   

The financial future 

 

The administration has been extraordinarily pleased with the support UNF has received from dedicated donors even during some of the worst economic instability in recent memory.

 

At the peak of the 2008 economic downtown, the University was preparing to roll out its most extensive public fundraising campaign in institutional history — the $110 million Power of Transformation campaign. The challenging economic climate had stressed the finances of all Florida universities, but that didn’t stop UNF from forging ahead.

 

A guiding factor behind the strength of that campaign has been UNF’s dedicated donors and alums, who have steadily moved the fundraising needle forward. The impact of the campaign will be felt for years to come through additional funding for merit scholarships, Presidential Fellowships and Presidential Professorships that will be employed to attract and support outstanding students and faculty members. In addition, annual and endowed funding will enable UNF to respond to strategic needs and offer students more TLOs.

 

Shuman said the University is also well-positioned from an operations standpoint to continue its strategic growth without overextending itself.

 

During the heart of the financial crisis, the University never laid off staff, an important focus to maintain UNF’s academic excellence and stellar service to its students.  There was also an ongoing effort to put additional dollars aside in reserve to cover any extra expenses. That strategic saving has now become an institutional staple for all departments and will continue into the future, Shuman said.

 

Next steps for growth  

 

When the economy recovers, Shuman said campus administrators would return to the University’s strategic plan to determine how to allocate resources. Hiring more skilled faculty is first on that list of strategic priorities.

 

“That’s a major priority for the president — raising the academic profile of the UNF faculty by hiring distinguished professors and making sure we’re competitive in terms of salary to keep our talented faculty,” Shuman said.

 

Dr. Gordon Rakita, president of the Faculty Association, said the University is no longer in its adolescence but in “the full blush of its young adulthood.” He sees that reflected in the academic offerings — thriving Flagship programs and distinguished faculty across all the colleges — and in the on-campus culture.

 

The next step in this growth phase, Rakita said, has to do with building off what UNF does best.

 

“I’ve always found that those professors who come to UNF speak highly of the opportunities they have here that they otherwise wouldn’t have had at another larger school,” Rakita said. “That access — to research opportunities and scholarship — is a major draw for the University. Once the budget catches up and more job openings are posted, the faculty ranks will start to swell. Many academics want to come here because of the transformational relationships UNF offers — with students and with other faculty members. We grant access to opportunities that might otherwise get lost in a sea of other concerns at a much larger institution.”

 

The building spree of the past decade is beginning to slow because of a diminished pool of state funding for academic buildings, so Shuman said to expect fewer new construction projects in the future.

 

Non-academic building projects such as the proposed Interfaith Chapel at the Sanctuary, a potential Greek housing project and religious centers on campus are next in line for construction in the strategic plan. Any additional campus construction would be more along the lines of renovating older facilities, such as Building 4, the previous home of Biology before the completion of the new Biological Sciences Building.

 

Other future plans include continuing to bolster the University’s auxiliaries to fund larger athletics events, concerts, campus recreation and student life activities. The campus must grow academically as well as culturally to continue its forward march toward that 25,000-student enrollment mark.

 

One thing that’s not in the future plan is a football team. At this point, the University would have to cut other programs to afford a football team, and that’s not something the administration is prepared to do. Also, the Title IX implications of adding a football team would require the addition of another female athletics team, adding even greater costs, Shuman said. The startup costs alone would be huge. In 2010, the average cost to begin a football program was between $21 and $45 million dollars, according to the NCAA. After that, the annual operational, athletic aid and personnel costs are substantial and vary from school to school based on the quality of the facilities, equipment and staffing. Additional athletics funding would be best served by propping up the University’s other rising programs, which have steadily moved toward the top of the Atlantic Sun Conference.

   

Preparing for another 40 years 

 

Delaney, a far more ubiquitous on-campus presence than most college presidents, said he enjoys strolling through campus.

 

His walking path hasn’t changed much during the years, but the sights along the way surely have. Ornate, glass-encased buildings rise in the background. A more diverse group of students greet him as he makes his way around campus. Nearly every step along the path is marked by some telling example of the University’s continued evolution.

 

“I’ve spoken with some longtime Jacksonville residents who remember UNF as that small school out in the woods,” Delaney said. “Others remember it as a primarily commuter school. But the vast majority now recognizes UNF as the destination it has become — a vibrant, culturally diverse University with a tremendous impact on the region. In the future, as enrollment increases and the University garners even more national prestige, that impact will only grow. It’s been an honor to have served as president during a period of such tremendous forward progress for the University, and I can’t wait to see what’s in store for UNF at the next milestone anniversary.”