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Founding faculty look back at 40 years of UNF

clifford new
The physical changes are the easiest to spot.

Untamed vegetation and faint dirt paths have morphed into shining, new multi-million-dollar buildings housed within a bustling, vibrant campus.

It’s a remarkable change for those who’ve been at the University of North Florida from the start. But the breadth of UNF’s growth goes far beyond new buildings for Drs. Dale Clifford and Louis Woods.

They’ve been on campus for every major University development. The UNF story is their story.

Clifford retired in June and will become an associate professor emerita, leaving open the option of teaching a few classes of her choosing.
“I’ve matured right along with UNF,” Clifford said. “I grew up inside this campus, and I owe my professional existence to the campus I’ve called my home for so many years.”

Woods teaches economics and geography and continues on as UNF’s lone founding faculty member. He hasn’t committed to retiring just yet, but he said could see himself passing the torch to his younger faculty colleagues within a year.

“It’s a part of me by now,” Woods said. “UNF is a vastly different place than it was when I first started. Much has changed. I’m happy to have played a part in that change and helped to have shaped it.”

Early campus life

Clifford, who joined UNF for its first year in 1972, said she tried to adopt a fearless persona early on because she was a young, female professor in the heavily male world of academia. Clifford and her colleagues were responsible for establishing the culture and setting a tone for the nascent University.

Clifford in classBeyond the early struggles every new professor faces, such as crafting syllabi and settling on class guidelines, many of the professors were given free rein to dabble in academic areas beyond their specialties. Clifford, a history professor specializing in French history, taught classes such as women’s history that were far outside her comfort zone.

It made sense at the time. The University simply didn’t have the manpower or the student base for the professors to specialize too much. While it was an intimidating mandate for a new professor, Clifford said she wouldn’t trade those early memories for anything.

“Just take the people who enter the teaching profession as junior professors now. They aren’t allowed the same scope we were,” Clifford said. “Nothing was off limits. That’s a beautiful thing to tell an academic, or anyone with a passion for intellectual exploration. Everything was within our grasp.”

Woods also keenly remembers that the small size of the University contributed to some spirited and intellectually stimulating conversations in the halls between professors from different departments and academic disciplines.

“We were all in the same building, and that building was teeming with life,” he said. “There weren’t many of us — students or faculty — at the start. That didn’t stop us from getting to know everyone those first few years.”

Other factors, however, brought the staff back to Earth quickly. Both Clifford and Woods became anxiously aware of their natural surroundings on campus.

Clifford said there was no food service on campus at the time other than vending machines, and the calorie-laden snacks locked inside often attracted bears. At the same time, area poachers hunting for those same bears occasionally made campus appearances.

“You could say it was … woodsy,” Clifford with a chuckle.

Woods remembers the stunning array of campus wildlife he encountered making his way to and from class, especially in the sandy campus parking lots. Other than bears, he spotted deer, wild birds, pigs and snakes. He said campus police at the time served more as animal deterrents than security.
“I don’t know if they had bullets in their guns,” Woods said, “But they definitely had shot to keep the animals at bay.”

He also somewhat fondly remembers his first office in Building 1, now J.J. Daniel Hall. It was a bit cramped and didn’t have much of a view, but it was located extremely close to the men’s bathroom.

“I can at least say there wasn’t much of a walk to the men’s room,” he said. “See? I’m an optimist.”

Leaving a mark

The University, which initially started as an institution for upper-division and master’s-level students, didn’t admit freshmen and sophomores until 1984. Clifford and Woods, both younger professors at the time, found themselves facing a unique situation for college instructors. They were quite often younger than their students.

Clifford, 26 at the time when she started at UNF, said the age difference added an interesting wrinkle to her early career. The average age of the faculty at the time was 29. The average age of a student was 31. She found it amusing.

“It didn’t impact me in the classroom,” she said. “There wasn’t a time during my lectures that I thought, ‘I might be the youngest person in this classroom,’ even if it was true.”

Once the University started accepting undergraduates in 1984, Clifford said she witnessed a beautiful cross-pollination of ideas resulting from the influx of younger students. Wide-eyed freshmen started interacting with seasoned graduate students, and the campus conversation became even more rich and diverse than ever before.

“Just because you have some people who are 18 years old doesn’t mean they can’t share any common ground with a 63-year-old who is looking to continue their academic journey after retirement,” she said. “That interaction between traditional and non-traditional students has been a hallmark of UNF since the early days.”

Another key to UNF’s identity has been its commitment to small class sizes and unprecedented student access to professors. That dedication to quality student/teacher interaction has never wavered, Clifford said.

“What I like is that as the University has grown, the intentions that were there at the beginning have remained,” she said. “The school hasn’t tried to expand beyond its means and expand rapidly into something that it didn’t initially set out to become. It has followed a path committed to a strong, liberal arts education and gradually added other areas of strength along the way. You can truly see the soul of all the earlier professors exists within UNF today.”

Driving city growth

While the core of campus has seen tremendous expansion over the years, Woods said UNF’s influence isn’t relegated to just the University proper. He said the campus has served as a “growth pole” for the whole of Jacksonville, attracting tremendous attention to Jacksonville’s Southside. More and more businesses over the years have relinquished their ties to the core of downtown and moved out to the more suburban Southside to be closer to campus.

Lou Woods (Photo by Dennis Ho).He attributed some of that movement to Jacksonville’s city-county consolidation in the late ‘60s, which was a driving factor behind the city’s current sprawling nature.

But he said UNF has had a magnetic appeal to many residents and businesses that want to be closer to a thriving University.

“You’ve seen a tremendous amount of construction around the campus, and its not just because there was open land there at the time,” Woods said. “Residents wanted to be closer to campus — either to go to school or to be near the energy of a University. And businesses, such as those inside the St. Johns Town Center, have identified the UNF student population as steady contributors to the local economy. They also want to be near a place that is producing qualified job candidates, and UNF has had a major impact on the city economy in that respect.”

Current economic estimates place UNF’s annual regional impact at nearly $1 billion.

“There are many ways to say it, but UNF isn’t that little school on the Southside anymore,” Woods said.

A changing campus

The differences separating modern-day UNF from the UNF of old are widespread.

Clifford said the most notable change for her comes in the campus diversity category. The inaugural student body shared many of the same demographic characteristics — most were white males from around the Northeast Florida region.

The student profile has changed dramatically over the years. Female students now outnumber males. The minority student population has increased exponentially, and the number of out-of-state and international students has ballooned. All these factors have helped inject some new and interesting ideas into the campus community.

“It takes different perspectives for an educational institutional to be at its best,” she said. “Much like history, the more viewpoints there are, the more accurate the record.”

Woods said he’s pleased that the advent of better technology has aided him in the classroom. He remembers the days of mimeographs and other ancient precursors to Scantron tests as well as life before electronic testing.

“They make it much easier on us now,” he said. “The equipment and technology at our disposal is much better than what we had starting out.”

Clifford recalled a time when overhead projectors were the ultimate in classroom tech and ditto machines were an unwelcome reality of daily professorial life.

The worst part was the maps. Big, bulky and completely unwieldy for a woman of Clifford’s size, the history department’s maps made it nearly impossible for her to elaborate on a geographic point without the aid of a student. “I couldn’t flip the map without help,” she said.

“They were huge and hard to read in spots. It’s a far cry from pulling up an extreme close-up of a location on a computer screen for all the class to see.”

A lasting legacy

Despite it being an over-used platitude, Woods said there is some merit to the belief that the more things change, the more they stay the same.
For instance, he is still teaching one of the first classes offered in the MBA program, on economics of business decisions. And in the eyes of the younger faculty, Woods still sees the same spark he had when he was just starting out. His passion, he said, hasn’t diminished after all these years.

“There’s something about UNF that has been nourishing for me,” he said. “It’s kept me going strong for many years. Being able to see our graduates go on and do tremendous work across the country and across the globe — I consider it a reward. At the same time, seeing the programs that I’ve been involved with develop into real stand-out, areas of note, that’s a great feeling. I’ve taken strength from UNF’s development, and I believe I’ve contributed to UNF’s increasing strength through the work I’ve done.”

Leaving campus after 40 years of shaping the future of the University was an emotionally draining experience for Clifford. Much of her office was packed up early, but the books she accumulated over years of teaching remained until the end.
The covers all brought back faint memories of her decades on campus. Some books she had used as teaching aids in the classroom. Others were given to her by colleagues or students. All of them reminded her of her UNF experience in some manner. There were a few she took home with the rest of her office decorations. But she decided to give away the bulk of them to students.

Clifford said the texts would be better put to use by budding young scholars looking for a bit of guidance. After all, their UNF experience is only partially written.

“I’m not a stickler when it comes to what my students remember from my classes,” she said. “I don’t expect them to remember a date that we briefly covered in class. I’d rather my students leave UNF with a stronger ability to reason and think critically. If they can think, then I’ve done my job.”