Photo: Bernard Brzezinski/UF
Eyes on the prize: New leaders at Florida universities
Across Florida, five public universities and a handful of state colleges — along with a number of private schools — installed new presidents over the past year or two.
UF's drive for preeminence
Kent Fuchs, who once aspired to the pulpit, now leads UF’s drive for top-10 status.
By Amy Martinez
Kent Fuchs, the University of Florida’s 12th president, recalls his own decision about where to attend college with some amusement.
Fuchs, a 1972 graduate of Killian Senior in Miami, says he wanted to attend the “best possible” college no farther than 1,000 miles from Miami. But he knew nothing about schools in the southeastern U.S. — his family had moved to Florida from Alaska when he was in his teens.
Fuchs (pronounced Fox) says he looked at data that showed the percentage of applicants that each school in the region rejected, figuring that the schools that turned the most people away were the best. He found that Duke University rejected the highest percentage of applicants, and so that’s where he decided to go, without ever visiting the campus or consulting other sources.
“Duke didn’t have the reputation then that it does now. I’d never heard of it,” he says.
Fuchs, an evangelical Christian, wasn’t always on track to become an academic. Before he graduated from Duke with an engineering degree, a pastor in North Carolina encouraged him to attend seminary. And so he enrolled at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in suburban Chicago.
Fuchs says he enjoyed learning and teaching theology but realized he was no Billy Graham. Known for a professorial manner, he often gave sermons using overhead projector transparencies. “I was terrible at preaching. But I was a good educator,” he once said. “I thought maybe I’d work in a university with college students.”
Fuchs went on to earn master’s and doctoral degrees in electrical engineering from the University of Illinois. In 2002, after teaching at Illinois and Purdue, where he headed the electrical and computer engineering school, he became engineering dean at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y.
Fuchs’ time at Cornell established his reputation as a skilled administrator. In 2009, he was named Cornell’s chief academic officer — just as the economy sank into recession. With the school facing a budget deficit of $150 million, he led a strategic planning process that ultimately included downsizing, restructuring and creating a new budget model. Cornell President David Skorton credits Fuchs with ensuring that Cornell emerged from the recession leaner and stronger.
According to Skorton, however, Fuchs’ greatest legacy for Cornell may not be at the school’s main campus in Ithaca, but in Manhattan.
In 2011, under then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg, the city of New York created a competition, open to major universities, to develop a new applied sciences graduate school in Manhattan. The winner, the city promised, would get a 99- year lease on 12 acres on Roosevelt Island and up to $100 million of infrastructure improvements.
Cornell wasn’t favored to win, competing originally against Manhattan-based Columbia and tech powerhouses MIT and Stanford, which became a heavy favorite after MIT withdrew. But as Cornell developed its proposal, Fuchs forged a partnership with the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology, which is known for producing entrepreneurial-minded grads who churn out tech startups.
The partnership added a practical-business dimension to Cornell’s academic heft, and the city selected Cornell’s proposal. Meanwhile, Charles Feeney, founder of the Duty Free Shoppers Group, gave the university $350 million to help pay for the campus.
After a lengthy review process, construction on Cornell’s tech campus began in January 2014, with the new facility expected to open in summer 2017.
“I’ll speak modestly,” says Fuchs, with more than a hint of pride, “but it’s the biggest thing since Cornell was founded.”
Since moving into his office in UF’s Tigert Hall, Fuchs says he’s spent most of his time listening to students, faculty and leaders on campus. He’s taken pains to dispel any notions that an engineer from the Ivy League might lack a personal touch. In February, Fuchs sat in on a Florida history class and wrote about it for the Florida Alligator, UF’s studentrun newspaper. He has amassed more than 4,000 followers on Twitter, where he can be seen taking selfies with students and alumni. On April Fools’ Day, he announced he would be “switching jobs” with head football coach Jim McElwain as part of a prank covered by ESPN.
“It’s important to not take myself too seriously — to be personal and visible,” he says. “It’s good that students know the administration cares about them, and the only way they can know that is if I’m personally there.”
Fuchs says he understands that his main mission is to advance UF toward its pre-eminence goals — chief among them, cracking the top 10 of public universities nationwide. U.S. News & World Report currently ranks UF 14th.
He feels, he says, “considerable” urgency about moving the school up the rankings ladder. Since 2013, the Legislature has given $35 million each to UF and Florida State University to strengthen their academic and research performance. UF has used the money to hire mid-career and distinguished professors in key areas, notably health, computing and life sciences. Together, Fuchs and FSU President John Thrasher went to the Legislature in March to ask for an additional $30 million apiece in pre-eminence funding.
Fuchs says he sees his two main roles as being UF’s “chief communicator” and attracting more money to the school. “The University of Florida is well run. It’s my job to communicate that,” he says.
Fuchs is long accustomed to many in academia viewing him as a curiosity because of his faith. Among his colleagues at Cornell and elsewhere in the Ivy League, he says, “I was the only evangelical Christian I knew.”
He says he feels at home in both the scientific worlds and his community of faith. He believes his background will serve him well in navigating a political world where science is often mistrusted when its methods and conclusions conflict with politicians’ personal religious beliefs.
“I’m very comfortable living in a world with people who have views that are not scientific,” he says. He believes he can help people with strong religious views become more comfortable with science and scientific inquiry.
Fuchs says he thinks Florida can make progress toward top-10 status within just a few years. Reflecting on his alma mater, Fuchs says that just as Duke has become a national and international academic powerhouse in recent years, “I don’t see why the University of Florida can’t do the same.”