February 23, 2020

Higher Ed

Strength in numbers: Profile of UCF President John Hitt

Jason Garcia | 5/24/2017

Economic engine

Beyond the philosophical debate about size versus quality, UCF’s growth — and the associated development of its once-remote campus — has raised other issues in Orlando. Some environmental groups and surrounding homeowners accuse the university of chasing after growth for growth’s sake. One environmental activist who has battled UCF says Hitt “has a developer’s mentality,” someone who has been willing to pave over natural areas on campus and unwilling to take responsibility for the urban sprawl that has sprouted around it.

Hitt doesn’t apologize. “There was going to be a lot of growth. It was going to happen here or somewhere,” Hitt says. “If you’re the University of Central Florida, and you accept that part of the mission of a state university ought to be access, then it’s kind of hard to say that ‘Well, we’ll grow to a size that’s convenient for us and then to hell with it.’ ”

Hitt is particularly well regarded by central Florida’s government and business leaders. One of the goals Hitt articulated at his 1992 inauguration speech was a pledge to make UCF the country’s top “partnership university.” And he has aggressively pursued deals that wove the university into the region’s economy and turned it into a major economic development engine.

When a local hotelier offered land to UCF, for example, Hitt agreed to build a college to train future hospitality managers in the heart of Orlando’s tourist district. When Electronic Arts told the school it was having trouble filling jobs, Hitt approved a new graduate program for video-game designers. And when leaders in the region’s simulation and training industry began to worry that the U.S. military might shrink its local presence because of budget cuts, Hitt arranged to provide rent-free office space for the Department of Defense.

Meanwhile, when the state Legislature authorized UCF to start a medical school, Hitt chose to build it at Lake Nona, 20 miles south of the main campus. There, it serves as an anchor for the Medical City complex. UCF also has begun construction of a joint campus with Valencia College in downtown Orlando, urged on by city leaders who hope it will stimulate more development in the area.

“I chair the mayors-and-metrouniversities task force for the U.S. Conference of Mayors, and when we have our meetings, it’s usually just mayors complaining,” says Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer. “And I’m always the one to speak up and say, ‘Oh my gosh, I have the best relationship anyone could have with our college president.’ ”

Hitt’s success has attracted interest from schools outside of Florida. Over the years, Hitt has interviewed for at least three other university presidencies: Alabama, Texas Christian and North Carolina State. Each time, he says, he ultimately withdrew his name from consideration.

UCF almost lost Hitt on another occasion. In June 2006, Hitt, who once weighed 319 pounds but dropped nearly 100 pounds through diet and exercise, was bicycling through the university’s research park when he felt a pain in his abdomen that turned out to be a heart attack. He pulled over, called his wife and then 911. The paramedics came in minutes, arriving so quickly because they came from a fire station on the edge of campus that had been built in the mid-1990s after Hitt had agreed to provide the land.

These days, the only question about Hitt’s future at UCF is when he will retire. He hopes to see a few final projects through, including the downtown Orlando campus and a new teaching hospital by UCF’s med school. He and Martha are considering buying a home in a university-affiliated retirement community and nursing home that has been planned next to campus, though construction is likely several years away.

“I often say, mostly in jest, you wouldn’t want to be the last one to know that you should have left two years ago,” Hitt says. “As long as I feel I can stay effective and get some things done that need to be done — or help get them done, anyway — I really enjoy this job. But nothing goes on forever. When I have a sense that I’m not as effective as I should be, then I’ll go.”

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