Crooks has witnessed and documented UNF’s growth

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The University of North Florida’s 40th anniversary is a time for reflection.

Many of the campus’ early landmarks have been updated, replaced or renamed. The University’s community footprint has grown exponentially, making it one of the region’s leading economic drivers with nearly $1 billion in annual regional impact. And UNF has gained a dedicated group of benefactors who’ve helped build the UNF Foundation to the point that it can sustain its mission of scholarship and student success for years to come.

UNF is only getting better, and Dr. Jim Crooks has had a front-row seat to watch the show.

Crooks, who started at UNF in 1972, was first tasked with building up a brand-new history program, as well as setting a direction that the department would follow for years to come. His own educational background helped prepare him for the role — he received his undergraduate degree from Yale University, followed by a master's degree and a doctorate from Johns Hopkins. During his time at UNF, he served as an interim dean and wrote two books, “Politics and Progress: The Rise of Urban Progressivism in Baltimore, 1895-1911” and “Jacksonville After the Fire: A New South City, 1901-1919.”

Upon retirement, he turned that keen eye for history to UNF in 2007, penning “Creating a University: University of North Florida Faculty and Staff Remember 35 Years,” which documented UNF’s evolution. President John Delaney authorized the work, which started out as an oral history project tied to the 35th Anniversary, to capture the institutional stories and memories of founding faculty and staff members on the verge of retiring.

The text is filled with anecdotes and insights from key figures in the University’s growth and explains how UNF went from an upper level commuter institution to a four-year, residential university of national prestige.

One thing that Crooks said hasn’t changed over the years is the University’s vision for quality undergraduate education and community involvement.

“UNF has always been distinctive in that there’s a great focus placed on educating our students to raise questions, think critically and engage on multiple topics,” he said. “It was an intangible quality when the University was first starting out — that focus on making sure the students could truly engage their coursework — not merely recite it from memory. Now, it’s etched into the fabric of the campus — a well-rounded educational experience has been and always will remain a key factor of any UNF degree."

Beyond just sizable internal growth, Crooks said UNF’s continued development is best measured through the University’s impact on the entire Northeast Florida community. He said UNF has evolved into a major economic and cultural player in the region that positively impacts multiple sectors of the regional economy. It’s no wonder that some of UNF’s strongest degree tracks — namely the Flagship Programs of nursing, nutrition and transportation and logistics — are mirrored by thriving business contemporaries in the Jacksonville Port Authority and the city’s bustling healthcare and bioscience industry.

Paired with the University’s strong cultural footprint, evidenced by a world-class jazz program and the ongoing partnership with the World Affairs Center, Crooks said UNF is a conversation driver for the region — and the state.

“There’s no doubt in my mind that UNF has become one of the major players in the city,” he said. “The JCCI [Jacksonville Community Council Inc.] did a study a couple years ago that stated directly that UNF has a huge impact on the health of the region. Universities are fundamentally important entities — they’re the engines of growth for cities and communities. We all know that, across the globe, American college graduates have led, and will continually lead, economic and intellectual growth. UNF is doing just that for the First Coast.”