UCF's new president Alexander Cartwright
A native of the Bahamas, Alexander Cartwright was the first in his family to go to college. His mother, who raised him mostly on her own, got no further than the sixth grade. “My mom was the smartest person I’ve ever met. She had an innate ability to learn. She just never had the opportunity,” he says, noting that Bahamian society was “very patriarchal. She worked whatever job she could get.”
When Cartwright was in high school, he and his mother moved from Nassau, Bahamas, to Iowa, where she got married. After getting his GED, Cartwright enrolled at the local community college, working various jobs to pay his way, including a stint as a custodian in a factory that made hydraulic systems for recreational vehicles. The factory’s owner persuaded Cartwright to study engineering.
“I was the custodian, but whenever people were missing, I’d just sort of fill in, so I started doing a lot of different jobs at the factory. The owner said to me, ‘I know you’re thinking about going into accounting, but you’re really good with your hands. Why not consider engineering?’ ”
In 1995, Cartwright got his Ph.D. in electrical and computer engineering from the University of Iowa and began teaching at the University at Buffalo, part of the State University of New York (SUNY) system. Eventually, he moved into administration, becoming provost and executive vice chancellor for SUNY in 2014 and chancellor for the University of Missouri in 2017.
In March, the University of Central Florida's board of trustees chose him as the school's president.
Cartwright, 55, succeeds Dale Whittaker, who resigned in February 2019, ending an eight-month tenure as president, after the university had come under fire from the Legislature over its use of $100 million in leftover operating money for construction, a violation of state rules.
Cartwright has said that rebuilding trust in Tallahassee will be a top priority. He arrived at UCF in the midst of the coronavirus shutdown, with campuses closed and classes held online only. He spoke to Florida Trend about his background and his plans as head of the state’s largest university.
- Rebuilding Trust: “It takes being consistent. You have to do what you say you’re going to do and not waver from what you’ve promised. It’s difficult right now with all the stuff going on with COVID- 19. We have to expend so much energy there that we may not have the time we need to build relationships.”
- Childhood: “We were poor. I remember periods of time when we didn’t have electricity. It was rough, but when everybody else is in the same position, you don’t feel any worse off.”
- First Job: “I cleaned hog-confinement buildings. They had fans, but no windows. You’re pressure-washing all of the excrement from everywhere, and you come out smelling just like the hogs. I felt very lucky when I got a job at Stuckey’s. It was more of a clerk-type job.”
- Research Mission: “Long term, when we get back to some sense of normalcy, I think we’re going to see growth in a number of areas. There’s an opportunity to do some great work in student success, research and community engagement. I know one of our mantras is that we’re going to be one of America’s leading partnership universities. I think that translates into the research and scholarship we can be doing, meaning we can grow our research significantly. Research, economic development, working with industry and other partners has to be a major part of what we’re doing.”
- Perspective: “I think all the time how lucky I am. Not everybody makes it out. I don’t know where the next major innovator or scientist is going to come from, but I believe that person is out there, and our job is to give them opportunity. Part of the beauty of being at a public research university is you’re able to affect lives and provide access at a cost that people can manage.”
Read more in Florida Trend's June issue.
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