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.
Florida Polytechnic’s president cites achievements and challenges.
By Mike Vogel
Faculty and administrative offices in the futuristic classroom building at Florida Polytechnic were designed with glass walls to promote collaboration. Even the president’s office has a glass wall, and in April, when university President Randy K. Avent returned from his father’s funeral in North Carolina, he founded it covered with notes of condolence from students and staff.
Florida Poly, the state’s newest and 12th public university, opened just last August to its first 540 students, most of them freshmen and a few grad students. Its aim is to be industry-friendly and produce industry-ready graduates in engineering and the hard sciences.
Avent came to Florida Poly from North Carolina State University, where he was associate vice chancellor of research and a professor of computer science. He holds a Ph.D. in biomedical mathematics and engineering from the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, a master’s in electrical engineering from N.C. State and a master’s in biomed mathematics and engineering from UNC, where he earned his bachelor’s in zoology.
Florida Poly is his first stint as a president. “My inexperience as a president is probably masked by our inexperience as a university,” he jokes. He says the university is on track in seeking accreditation, which state law requires the university to achieve by the end of next year. It’s critical to students, not least because no accreditation means no federal student loans and no money from educational savings plans. Meanwhile, a second dorm is in the works.
Avent’s thoughts on Florida Poly:
The inaugural year: “It went much smoother than any of us actually thought. Classes went off pretty smooth.”
Growth: “We’ll come pretty close to doubling the faculty, adding 30 between full time and adjuncts.”
Scholarships: “Last year we just flat paid tuition for everyone. (Next) year we’re doing variable scholarship amounts. In some cases they’ll get a lot more than tuition, and in some cases less. We had a lot of students show up last year — we had given them tuition, but they still had a tough time covering the cost of the dorm and books and other things.
This year we decided to have a variable that’s a combination of need-based and merit-based. There are some who don’t have much need but they’re top students. For those we have two new scholarships, a provost and a presidential.”
Paying for scholarships: “We’ve committed to fund the scholarships from the foundation.That’s a huge ask for the foundation.We’ve met all the requirements for the first class. Now we’re in a capital campaign to raise money for the second class.”
Student achievement: “For a brand new school starting out that doesn’t have a reputation and, more importantly, is not accredited, we can be very boastful of the students. A 1310 average SAT score is in the same ballpark as Worcester or Rensselaer (two long-established polytechnics). A 3. 9 average GPA.”
Distinction: “One of the things that separates us from other engineering schools is we’re a very project-oriented, designbased curriculum. No one told kids you have to finish calculus 3 and differential equations before you can start solving problems.We’re doing pretty good right up to the point you think, ‘Oh crap, they’re freshmen’ (and then you realize) we’re doing a whole lot better than good. We had one set of students file a provisional patent. We had a magnetically levitating lamp competition where students individually built lamps that levitated. It turns out there are a lot of engineering problems with that. We’ve had a number of design competitions this year.”
Future: “One of the things we’re going to work on next year is the research infrastructure. We’ve still got a long ways to go on the research infrastructure.”
Money: “We’re doing fine.There are always challenges. When you’re building a whole new university, there’s a lot of stuff you have to buy. The state did very well by us.”
Preparation: “We want to make sure the students who are graduating are lifetime employable.We have an underwater autonomous vehicle club, a humanpowered vehicle club. Kids are building projects all the time, and that’s integrated into the curriculum, and they’ll do that for all four years. When they come out, they’ll know how to build stuff.”
- 2014/15 Enrollment: 554 as of spring
- 2015/16 Projected Enrollment: 906
- 2014/15 Faculty: 59 (includes full-time and adjunct faculty); the school expects to add approximately 10 faculty members in 2015/16.
- 2014/15 Operating Budget: $38 million
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