It is a great honor and privilege to be here today at this long-standing UNF tradition where we express our gratitude for the excellence we see in our faculty and staff. Your commitment to make UNF a phenomenal institution is greatly appreciated. For those of you who recently started your career at UNF, I would like to officially welcome you to the Osprey family.
When my wife, Maria, and I arrived in town in May, we knew this was a special place. I would like to introduce you to my wife, Maria. She is the most special person of the two of us, and I appreciate you welcoming her to the University. In just 14 short weeks, the campus and Jacksonville have become home to us, in fact, it became home on day one. When people ask us if we like Jacksonville, my wife has the best answer. She says, “What is there not to like?” If you think about Jacksonville, you think about UNF and what a great place it is to call home.
I would also like to congratulate today's award winners, especially our new Distinguished Professor of the year, Dr. Adel El-Safty. This is the highest honor we confer upon a university faculty member and Dr. El-Safty is very deserving. He is a dedicated teacher and an international scholar. He is truly phenomenal, and we are so fortunate to have him call UNF home.
Before we proceed to the awarding of honors, I have been asked to discuss with you what the future looks like for UNF. As I told the Florida Board of Governors, it is a new day at the University of North Florida. We are going to be laser-focused, not only on student well-being but also on student success. Student success is simple, in terms of what we are going to do. It is about attracting, retaining, graduating and placing great students. We have an obligation to make sure they have jobs, and an opportunity to contribute back to society. This is a simple model.
As a professor for 31 years, I wake up thinking about that every day. “How can we create a better experience for our students?” We are going to talk about creating a culture for success that focuses on integrity, respect, innovation, excellence and being uniquely UNF. It is not about being like some other institution. We are going to figure out what we do best and what we can do best; what people are not doing, and what people are not willing to do.
We have talent, and the unique talent is the people sitting in this room. You cannot duplicate our faculty, staff and our students. It is an exciting time, and it is not about being okay, pretty good or very good. It is about being excellent, understanding what excellence is, and then creating this phenomenal experience for our students that distinguishes our university from any institution in the country. We are doing this already because the foundation is here, and we need to build on it.
Our faculty engage with our undergraduates in research. We have the Alligator Eggs Project. We have the Adaptive Toy Project, which is extremely remarkable in terms of giving back. Students from different colleges come together to make a difference for disabled children, and for their families. Our students participate in real-world experiences. Eighty-seven percent of UNF seniors take part in internships or real-world experiences before they graduate. We lead all state institutions in job placements, and we are very proud.
We are also at the forefront of what I call the “seamless classroom.” This is blending where the classroom ends, where the city begins, where the city ends, and where the classroom begins. We are already doing some of these things, unlike anywhere else in the country. I had the opportunity to witness and listen to the results of the Data Science for Social Good (DSSG) project. This is where our undergraduates use data analytics, across disciplines. We are partnering with nonprofits to make a difference for them; to bring a quantitative bent to who they are and what they are all about, and to answer questions that help them to be better. That is what it looks like for the future of education. It is students integrated with the community and the community integrated with the students; therefore, the classroom is everywhere. This is amazing, and I want to thank the faculty who have spearheaded and continue to participate in these initiatives. You indeed are special people with a wonderful heart.
Today, I am challenging every college and every department to be innovative and to develop new ways to expand and enhance these opportunities for our students. It is okay to be ambitious. Remember you are, by definition, ambitious people who understand how to achieve dreams and how to realize those dreams. After all, you have figured out how to be among the few who have graduate degrees, terminal degrees, and work at a major public university. You know how to create opportunities for yourselves. You have dreamed big, and you are big winners. Therefore, we want to instill that in our students. We want to make that central to our culture here at UNF.
As I tell people, I am in the opportunity business and you are, too. If we do our jobs well, we create opportunities for other people, fellow colleagues, staff, community members, and most importantly, our students. Everyone in this audience is a difference maker. We want our students to be difference makers, too. Think about getting up every morning and finishing each day with the question, “Did I make a difference today?” Think about the individual and collective impact of everybody answering yes to that question. “Did I make a difference today?” Pretty powerful! The world will be a great place if everybody is making a difference every day. Ospreys are, and Ospreys will be known as difference makers.
As a marketing professor, I am excited about defining who we are and telling our story. As I have promised state leaders, we will be the next “breakout university” in Florida. We already have passionate faculty, staff and students and we have the most beautiful campus in the world. We do not need any rankings for that. Now, we need to concentrate our efforts on raising expectations, focusing on the horizon, and seeking perfection in all we do. It is unmistakably through setting big ambitions, combined with excellence, combined with a spirit of innovation, combined with a culture of mutual respect, that we will make phenomenal things happen at UNF.
I will close with a tennis quote from Stefanos Tsitsipas who just turned 20 years old. Tsitsipas was making a run through the tournaments a couple of weeks ago to beat the top-ten players. At the end of defeating his opponent, he began writing words on the camera lens. You could not figure out what was being written because it was being written backwards. Finally, the words appeared on the right side of the camera, and the saying was “It doesn’t get any easier; you just get better.” Teaching doesn’t get any easier, research doesn’t get any easier, and making a difference doesn’t get any easier. But you just get better. I promise you that, together we will get better, to the benefit of our students and everyone seated in this room. I look forward to working with you, working for you, leading you, and leading with you to make a difference at UNF. Thank you very much.