Strength in numbers: Profile of UCF President John Hitt
Quantity vs. quality
Higher education has been central to Hitt since he was a kid growing up in Houston. Hitt’s father dropped out of high school to pay his sick mother’s medical bills and never made it back. His big dream, Hitt says, was for his only child to get a college degree.
When Hitt was 15, his father had a heart attack and died. His mother kept on him about college.
On the advice of an aunt, Hitt chose to attend Austin College, a tiny liberal arts school founded by a Presbyterian minister in Sherman, Texas, about 300 miles north of Houston.
He planned to pursue a career in the ministry. Faith remains important to Hitt, now an Episcopalian who says he gets uncomfortable when he doesn’t attend church regularly. “I believe that we are more complete human beings if we have that dimension of faith,” he says. “And I do think that, at its best, the Christian faith has answers for a lot of people.”
He was a serious student. He had a 4.0 grade point average as a freshman and skipped his final college football game — Hitt was a 6’5” offensive lineman — so he could take the GRE. That’s part of what made him attractive to Martha Halsted. She was a junior at Austin College when she first met Hitt, then a freshman who happened to be in the lobby of the women’s dorm waiting to pick up a date. The two became friends and eventually began dating. They married a few months before Hitt graduated.
By then, Hitt had dropped his plans to become a minister and earned a degree in psychology, choosing the major after taking a class taught by a charismatic professor. The young couple moved to New Orleans, where Hitt earned master’s and doctoral degrees in physiological psychology at Tulane University. They had two children as Hitt’s career took off, first as a professor and researcher, later as an administrator through a series of posts at private universities: Tulane, Texas Christian University in Fort Worth and Bradley University in Peoria, Ill.
In 1987, when he was 46, Hitt took a job as vice president for academic affairs at the University of Maine, his first time working on the campus of a public university. Martha Hitt says her husband’s experience working with students who tended to come from further down the economic ladder had a profound impact on him and how he thought about the role of a university.
“He saw a different kind of need that education could fulfill,” she says. “And it wasn’t that the need wasn’t there in the other schools. But this was a much bigger, more important passion.”
Hitt’s boss at Maine was Dale Lick, who left in 1991 to become president of Florida State University. Hitt, who became interim president, began to search for permanent openings elsewhere, considering presidencies at the University of Texas-Arlington and Indiana State University.
The UCF job came open unexpectedly, after a former president resigned amid a prostitution scandal. Lick recommended Hitt for the job and then persuaded him to go after it aggressively. Hitt knew little about the school, but Lick sold him on its potential. “I remember telling him you just can’t help but grow there, and grow substantially, because you’re just right in the middle of the heart of things,” Lick says.
Hitt beat out more than 140 applicants, although some members of the Board of Regents “wondered whether Hitt’s low-key, deliberate style could generate the dynamism” that UCF needed, according to an Orlando Sentinel article at the time.
He was inaugurated Nov. 19, 1992.