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UNF Presidential Inauguration, February 22, 2019

Remarks from President David M. Szymanski

On the last Friday of February, Dr. David M. Szymanski was inaugurated as the University of North Florida’s sixth president. This formal ceremony included the installation of President Szymanski, investing him with the powers and responsibilities of the presidency. The theme of the Inauguration was Uniquely UNF, highlighting what makes the University special. View the formal ceremony.


It is phenomenal being here, and I want to thank everybody in the audience today. I want to thank Kevin Hyde for all his support. He’s a remarkable chair and person. The Board of Trustees gives us so much support and is committed to making this an excellent institution. I want to thank our Board of Governors who really has been part of our team now, and I’m excited about working with each one of them in trying to find ways to elevate our institution.

Chairman Lautenbach, I appreciate that you took the time to be here. It’s special and something I treasure. And Chancellor Criser, you’re doing a phenomenal job leading the best university system in the country. I look forward to our partnership to raise the profile of UNF. I also want to thank Ann Hicks. Ann was one of the special people I got to meet early on. She said I hadn’t started work in March. Although, I had started work in March [reaching out to the University community}, and Ann was great. It was one of those honors and pleasures to meet Ann and her husband, David. As I tell people, sometimes you only have to meet people for a few minutes and you’re better off. When I had the opportunity to meet David and Ann, I know I was better off as a person, and we were greater as an institution as well as a community. I want to thank you for your support and everything you’ve done to make this University great. Thank you, Ann.

I certainly want to thank the students, alums, faculty and support staff — the people who make this the most beautiful campus in the world — for all they do to create an institution that is unparalleled not only in the state of Florida but across the globe. I keep talking like that all the time, but it is okay.

I want to thank my wife, Maria, who had the foresight and the good judgment to listen to one of our fellow cheerleaders when I was a sophomore in college to come and knock on my door and introduce herself to me. She made the best decision for me and has been a great partner for many years — and it really is a partnership. She loves it here. It’s a thrill for her to be here, and I’m forever grateful for everything she does every day to make my life better. I want to thank my children, Ashley, Matthew and Jessica — the people who have given purpose to my life and every day I wake up thinking about how can I make life better for them. And I think about my granddaughter, who has informed me she is now five and three-quarters. You’ve got to get that straight. She’s magical. She can get me to do anything that she ever wants me to do. See, watch. Can you clap for Juliet a minute? She got you to do things you normally wouldn’t have done for someone. She really is the person I wake up thinking about; how can we make the world a better place? Somebody told me, “You need to be a president because you’re going to make things better for our grandchildren.” That’s what we do. It’s a purpose we take seriously, and something we wake up thinking about every day.

So, as we talk today, we’ll talk about a few things, give you a little bit of historical perspective on the institution and where we’ve come from. Every president has an institution that is built on the shoulders of others. We’ll talk about students today and who they are now and how proud we are of who they are and what they are becoming, and we’ll talk about our mindset. What are we going to look like tomorrow? How are we going to approach the future? How are we going to shape the future and own the future? We’ll talk about unique things and I have a special surprise for you at the end of that.

As we talk through the presidency, we also have to realize that we are a relatively young institution, so the good news is I’m just the sixth president. If I have to talk about every president, you can do the math, and there are only five people to talk about, but it is five important phenomenal people who created a strong foundation.

In the fall of 1972, President Thomas Carpenter welcomed the first class — junior and senior students; freshmen and sophomores weren’t part of the plan. They put trust and faith in the institution and in faculty and administration to create an environment where they could be successful. And they did. And they kept coming back. It’s amazing to talk to people who are part of that first class, the first two classes, and three classes. There was only a building or two, and they didn’t know where the place was located within the city of Jacksonville, but they were our foundation, too. President Carpenter was followed in 1982 by UNF’s second president Curtis McCray. President McCray expanded academic offerings in health, computer information sciences and established our athletic program. He built the first student housing and admitted the first class of freshman and sophomore undergraduates. Around 1986, we had the first graduating class where somebody could have started UNF as a freshman, still pretty young. The baton passed in 1989 to Dr. Adam Herbert, UNF’s third president. President Herbert pushed the University to new heights by establishing our first doctoral degree program, as well as establishing our fifth college, then known as the College of Computing and Information Sciences. In 1999, President Anne Hopkins became UNF’s first female president. We are extremely proud to have Dr. Hopkins join us on the platform today. President Hopkins knew that UNF would need private support to continue on its current growth trajectory. She completed the $100 million Access to Excellence campaign which is a testament to the support that UNF receives from the region. In 2003, John Delaney became UNF’s fifth president. During his tenure, UNF completed a campus masterplan that added two million square feet of labs, classrooms and other critical spaces on campus. UNF surpassed 15,000 students for the first time in its history and created the Hicks Honors College as the profile of our students kept rising and continues to increase.

Therefore, I stand before you today as the sixth president of UNF on the shoulders of these dedicated leaders whose vision contributed to the economic growth of Jacksonville and the economic growth of UNF. While presidential inaugurations and opportunities reflect on the past, it’s also time to speak to what makes us uniquely UNF today and what will make us uniquely UNF in the future. As a marketing professor, I would be remiss if I didn’t talk and brag about our students. After all, I’m supposed to be the spokesperson of the institution, so if you know our students, they are phenomenal. And some of them are here today, in the balcony. I do have the opportunity to meet with them on a regular basis. We will have two or three scheduled meetings a week, and you come out of that so impressed.

First of all, you know the future is in good hands. Secondly, you know they are hardworking, committed, dedicated and passionate. They have big dreams. It’s our responsibility to help them along that path. You need to hire them if you’re an employer because you will be better off as a company.

A couple things: so as I mentioned, we are the number one university system in the country and that’s phenomenal. And within that, we are the top institution in terms of people getting jobs within the state of Florida. There’s a reason why you should hire our students. Ninety percent of seniors take part in internships and other real-world experiences giving them an edge in the competitive job market.

Second, UNF students take part in study abroad programs. We rank eighth in the country in terms of short-term study abroad and 12th in the country in terms of long-term study abroad. It’s an important perspective for people who are going to lead the world tomorrow.

Third, we have unparalleled facilities. We mentioned a little about the growth that we’ve had over the past 15 years including things like: we are one of the few universities in the country with a helium liquefier — something as a marketing professor I know nothing about, but I appreciate the fact that we have one. So, do not come and take my liquefier away, please.

Faculty and students in the College of Computing, Engineering and Construction are making advances in 3D printing thanks to a partnership we have with Johnson & Johnson, which is outstanding. We have a new STEP Lab that allows our students to try out emerging technology and incorporate cutting-edge tools in the classroom upon graduation.

Fourth, undergraduates have the opportunity to engage with faculty in research often as freshmen. That’s a very, very unique opportunity. Ninety-nine percent of classes are taught by faculty. And these students have the opportunity to walk up and ask to work with faculty. When I ask students, “Do you work with faculty?” They say “yes.” I’ll say, “How did you get that done?” “I just asked.” Then I talk to faculty, “Do you work with students? And these students who are freshmen tell me they can work on research projects with you. How does that happen?” “They just ask.” They say “if they ask, then we know they are great students. They’re motivated, they’re excited, they’re passionate. And we want to help.” Our students are great students in terms of working with faculty, but our faculty are equally open to spending the time to mentor the students and give them invaluable experiences.

Fifth, our students are really smart. I mean they’re not just a little smart. They’re really smart. The average high school GPA for our freshman class this fall was 4.32, and our average ACT score was just about a 27. We have the Hicks Honors College. These are honors college numbers, and this is our average student. You really need to hire them. They are experienced and worldly and really, really talented. So, the fact that they not only come here and from the region, but they stay in the region — another important factor.

At UNF, we take our responsibility in Jacksonville very seriously, and it’s about all kinds of partnerships. So, you have a glimpse of who our students are and they are remarkable. I’m proud of them and honored to be their president; and so my responsibility is to make it a better place for them. That’s a serious responsibility, because every day we have to be better. It’s not about being okay. It’s not about being the same as yesterday. It’s about being better.

A couple of people asked me — just a couple of the thousands of people I met while visiting UNF, “When you think about why you take any job, what are the things that make you feel like it’s a great fit?” For me, it’s about fit. It’s about the opportunity to make a difference. But, as I talked to faculty and staff and we talked to the search committee and leadership, what you saw were two things. It was about passion and commitment. People are passionate about the institution. Then, as I talked to more and more people in Jacksonville, they started telling me about their niece, nephew, son or daughter, or neighbor who loved UNF and how great it was and how great an experience they had. You go, “Wow, the city has Passion. Passion for the institution. Sometimes that doesn’t happen when you’re local; people think that it’s better somewhere else. People here realize and recognize that talent is right here. The future is right here. So, when you take a president’s job, one of the things you can easily build on – which means it’s a foundation — is passion. You can build on passion. You can do a lot of stuff when you have people who are passionate. It’s our passion that we see, that we demonstrate, that you heard about as people have talked today, as you’ve seen as you walk around campus, perhaps as community members who have spoken to graduates and people who have interacted. It’s passion combined with a few things.

As we approach the future, it’s about this mindset, a strategic mindset. It’s about how you approach issues, ideas, problems and challenges. Besides the toothpick thing (I’ve got to figure that one out.), it’s a couple of things. Seriously … it’s about being ambitious. It’s about perfection. It’s about being unique. It’s about seeking partnerships. Let’s talk a little about ambition. It’s really about our commitment to student success. The Board of Governors has instituted metrics all about student success. It’s hard not to believe in that.

When we think about who we are and talk to our students, they dream really big. Students are here because there are opportunities that we create for them. There has always been that someone special in your life that has allowed you to get where you’re going today. It could have been a teacher, an academic institution or someone else who could have been a counselor or advisor. You can do things you know, and you can be pretty good. You know, for the athletes in the room, there’s always someone who recognized your talent when others didn’t. When you think about an athlete, you think about what an athlete does. They train to be great. They don’t train to be pretty good. They strive to be excellent at what they do.

And so when I look at our institution, it’s not about being a pretty good institution. It’s about seeking ideal points and being the best university. Period. It’s not in a region. It’s not in a state. It’s not in a country. Although those are all important, it is about being the best. Period. For those of us old enough to know, it’s a little Michael Jordan perspective to life where it’s about ideal point referencing. It’s about seeking to be the best every day and getting up every day knowing that you’re not there and knowing that you’ll never get there, so it avoids the pitfall of complacency.

So when I look at UNF and its possibilities, and look where we are located and I look at the passion, it really is about creating the ambition. We are going to be really great and phenomenal. We wake up every morning trying to think about how we are going to be great and phenomenal. We do that within a context. It’s within a context of integrity and respect and being ethical. Also, in context with inclusion and diversity. How can we be the best institution period? By including everybody and making it accessible and thinking about how the collective perspectives can launch us forward and put us in a place that no one else can. So, when I talk about ambition, it’s not a negative ambition. You know it’s not an ego test called ambition. It’s about being extraordinary, and we have the resources, opportunity and mindset to be a phenomenal institution. Ambition is going to be one of the pillars, and then we can talk a little about another concept that sounds like it is related, but it’s about perfection. It’s about seeking perfection. It’s about constantly striving. Our students deserve the best. They deserve for us not to fail them. There are people who have overcome a lot of adversity to be at our institution. We got to get it right for them every day.

Back to the notion of sort of being a 10. It sounds cliché, but there’s a story about being a ten that brought the point home for me. I was sitting and having breakfast with someone who was an executive vice president of human resources at a fortune 500 company. I was at my previous job. We won’t name anybody or the institution. It was a good institution. We’ve got people from there. Anyway, we are having breakfast, and I said: “you’re not recruiting our students.” “You’re like three and a half miles away, and you don’t recruit our students.” We have excellent students, and so his answer was really simple but got the point home. He said, “You have to be a ten. You can be a nine, and that’s okay. You can be an eight and seven is pretty good, too.” He said, “But we have choices. Unless you’re a ten, we are not coming.”

So, when we think about what we have to do, we have to make sure we are a ten because the student also has choices. Faculty have choices, donors have choices, employers have choices. For us, it’s seeking perfection, and we can’t let people down. It’s working hard every day to make sure that you’re there for that individual. Sometimes in the service industry, we forget the person coming next doesn’t know nor do they care what happened before they came in front of you. They want you there for them at that moment, and you have to act like they are the first person you’ve seen today. We have to do that as an institution. As professors, we know there are days we walk in class and we are dragging one foot, but as soon as the bell goes off —we don’t have bells but figuratively— you know it’s like “Coach, put me in,” and all of a sudden you just snap to and you’re like “I’m here for you.” That’s what we do. We owe it to our students. We owe it to our community. We owe it to the university, and the state system to be a 10. We need to be a 10 on each of the metrics that the Board of Governors presents before us because it makes sense intuitively, and then we need to be a 10 for everybody on our campus every day. Passion combined with perfection is really important.

The third component is we want to be uniquely UNF. What does that mean? Back to the notion of a service industry. What makes you unique, distinct? What can’t you duplicate? You can’t duplicate the people, the value system. What makes us unique and distinct from every institution? It’s the people in this room, the people in our community, the fact that we are located in Jacksonville. It gives a unique opportunity to do things as no one has before. So, when we think about what we want to do as an institution, it is about innovation. It is about creating the classroom with a future. It is about getting students engaged in research and experimental types of activities that will give them a competitive advantage moving forward. We really don’t want to be like someone else.

I played basketball. As some of you know, legendary coach John Wooden didn’t scout the competition. He said, “you have to adjust to our game.” It’s thinking about what you can do, the resources, the people you have in place, the strategic mindset you have in place and making sure that you’re shaping the future. That’s what we have an opportunity to do. Again, we are uniquely poised because we have people who care, and we are in a phenomenal city, Jacksonville. A couple of things we are doing exemplifies being uniquely UNF. We are going to focus on three-year graduation rates. We are instituting a program called UNF plus. Our students are smart. I told you that. You know that. All the students in the front few rows are. [Looking at students] Are you really smart? Yes? Just say yes. Yes you are. You come in with a lot of hours and so we want to graduate you in three years and make sure you have a master’s degree at the end of this because what is going to be the competitive imperative moving forward in the job market is looking at resumes and making sure you have a master’s degree. It makes you better trained and smarter and puts you on a different trajectory in terms of a career path. If you look in terms of the labor market, the jobs are ones with undergraduate and at least a master’s degree. Chemistry with and undergrad and master’s degree. Physics with the same, engineering with the same, business with the same. So, you go through this education the same, and we want to do things that are unique. We want to make sure you have that opportunity to come out of here in four years with two degrees.

We are also instituting a partnership, a unique program with the acronym C.A.S.S. It’s a Community Alliance for Student Success. It’s thinking about underrepresented groups and how can we not only get people here, but establish trust, and we need to make sure the institution is a position to ensure their success. It’s not about admissions; it’s not about attraction only. It’s about creating an environment that allows you to thrive. People often think they are the only ones going through something, and they are not. So, we reached out to community leaders, the African-American community to start, to think about teams, where we have a team leader who really, truly is going to take ownership over 15-20 students and create unique experiences, take them out someplace, you know, create a community, have seniors in those groups, mentor the freshmen. But, it’s about a partnership, all need help. It’s about all us together co-innovating to achieve goals. You’ll hear more in the future.

We have an innovation center we launched downtown a couple of weeks ago. We want to be the epicenter and the catalyst for innovation in our community. It’s about bringing students together with business people, investors, others who are experienced, creating an educational opportunity that also thinks about how can we be innovative within our community, and that’s really important. And the issue that was brought up by one of our presenters is around student wellbeing. It is a big and prominent issue. It’s something I talked about and reached out into the community since Day One. What we are going to focus in on, really which people aren’t just yet, is the prevention part of it. So, it’s not just about helping people at the end, which we will. We will have the support system and the talent in place to help people, but it is how can we make sure we never get there? How can we make sure we never need a counselor? What can we do to make sure students aren’t stressed, depressed and suffering from anxiety? My daughter works for a pharmaceutical company. I guess I can’t tell you what it is because we are public, and we don’t get royalties, so I’m not going to say their name, but she works on the corner of happy and healthy. See, the power of marketing. You know who that is. Don’t underestimate marketing. But it really is creating an environment where students are happy and healthy. It’s everybody’s job. It’s not just a student affairs issue. It is the faculty’s job and maintenance creating a campus that is easy to navigate, that is beautiful and makes people feel good.

As my granddaughter walks across campus she’s like “look at those flowers, they are so beautiful.” It’s going to be a priority for us moving forward, and prevention is going to be a game changer for us. We are going to partner with entities within the community to bring people together because we don’t know enough. Nobody really knows enough. When you talk to people individually, they know something and then somebody else knows something, but we want to be the epicenter to bring people to Jacksonville and people to think about this issue. We want to think about the research, the dialogue and also the action steps that follow from that. That’s going to be a priority for us moving forward.

And then the last dimension is partnering. It’s not about doing it ourselves. One of the things that truly attracted me to UNF is the fact that we are in Jacksonville. It is that opportunity to build bridges to the community and indeed make a difference, create unique opportunities for our students and faculty, and reciprocate by creating unique opportunities for our city. Partnering is fundamental to who we are. We can’t do everything by ourselves. We don’t know everything. We don’t have resources and the experimental tools that people in the community can bring to the table, too. So, partnering is essential to us, which gets us to a gift announcement. So that’s cool, and that’s fun.

Throughout the life span, UNF has been fortunate to have community partners that believe in what we do every day. One such person is Jorge Morales. Given all he is doing for UNF, you would think he is an alum. When he started his own computer company in 1982, he had no connection to UNF, but he’s a savvy businessman and wanted talent to grow his company. He looked to UNF and got involved. Over ten years ago, Jorge began creating scholarships ending up with a rewarding career at the company. He built a software company into the highly successful multi-million dollar company it is today. The first time I met Jorge, he was grateful for the long relationship with UNF School of Computing. How grateful? Today I’m thrilled to announce that Jorge’s company has made an enormous, generous gift of $1 million to the School of Computing. The vast majority of this significate gift will create scholarships for undergraduate students and elevate school of computing. The Morales family and RF Smart are building their legacy right here on our campus. Jorge and Majorie, I want to thank you for your support and how you make a difference in people’s lives. Thank you again. If you turn your attention to the balcony, you see a group of student from the School of Computing. These students represent the future of our community and the results of this great partnership, and the most important thing is every one of those people will have jobs tomorrow because we have one hundred percent placement for computing majors. Congratulations and thank you again. We appreciate this wonderful gift. It really is transformational.

I’ll close and give you an opportunity to mingle and sort of share in the joy that we are sharing here on stage. I want to thank you and offer my deep commitment to make this a phenomenal institution. Again, it’s not about being okay. It’s about being the best, and we have the people who can help us. We want you to hire our students and think about scholarships, a huge priority for us. It’s about student success and making it accessible, making sure students can continue to go on through school and making sure they graduate and get great jobs. That’s what it’s all about. At the same time, we have the opportunity, because of the great people that we have, to also shape and mold character. So, it will be about the student’s character; it will be about integrity. You will hear about respect and kindness. Those are the differentiators of any institution, and that’s why you want to hire people.

It is an honor, a privilege and a pleasure, and I’m humbled to be the sixth president of UNF. I pledge that we are going to be a phenomenal institution. Thank you for all your support, and thank you for the opportunity to be here today. Thank you.