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Strength in numbers: Profile of UCF President John Hitt

64,000 students aren’t too many for UCF to handle, says John Hitt, who believes that quality education and a massive student body aren’t mutually exclusive.

In the early 1950s, when he was about 10, John Hitt went to work at his parents’ print shop. Wheeler’s Printing Co., named after its original owner, printed posters, handbills and envelopes for trade unions. It occupied the first floor of a two-story building, beneath two apartments, in a neighborhood just southwest of downtown Houston.

Hitt’s father ran the shop, though he still carried his union card from his days as a typographer. His mother was a bookbinder. Hitt’s first job was to reclaim the metal that was used to make the letters and characters that went onto the press that printed the documents. Every Saturday morning, he’d fill up a big steel pot with a blend of lead, zinc, tin and antimony, melt it down and pour the mixture into 25-pound ingots. “We’d be up to our elbows in benzene,” says Hitt, now 76. “My gosh, where was OSHA when we really needed it?”

One day, after Hitt had learned to operate the presses, his father offered to pay him a dollar for every 1,000 copies he made — provided the copies were good enough that customers would pay for them. “I think that was a great life lesson to encounter as a kid,” Hitt says. “You can imagine a young kid — ‘Boy, I want to have all the copies I can possibly produce here.’ Well, you know if you try to go too fast, the customer is going to say, ‘I don’t think so.’ And however many hours you worked, it was for nothing.”

Hitt, who studied and taught psychology for many years, draws a straight line from that print-shop lesson in Houston to his presidency at the University of Central Florida in Orlando. His tenure, in many ways, has been devoted to the premise that quantity and quality are not — and should not be — mutually exclusive in higher education.

He makes a case for having achieved both during his 25 years as president, the longest tenure of any top university leader in Florida. Once an unremarkable commuter school in east Orlando, UCF has become one of the largest research universities in the country, with an enrollment now topping 64,000. Undergrads, graduate students and medical school students study online and at a dozen campuses. More than 40,000 students enroll in the summers.

At the same time, the caliber of student has climbed. Freshman entering UCF have average SAT scores of 1262 and weighted GPAs of just over 4.0. Nearly 250 National Merit Scholars are enrolled in the school, second-most among Florida universities. And the university’s graduation rate is substantially higher than the national average.

Under Hitt, the school, originally named Florida Technological University, elevated its football program to Division 1 status and moved it into a 45,000-seat, oncampus stadium. It built a new student union, campus gym and performing arts center, an eight-acre grassy mall and more than 11,000 housing units. UCF’s medical college, which recently turned 10 years old, anchors the Medical City community in Lake Nona.

Hitt frames UCF’s growth as a moral imperative. Public universities, he says, have an obligation to raise the level of education in their communities, ticking off the benefits that flow from college degrees, ranging from higher incomes to better parenting.

“We look at students and say we wish we could take everyone who has a real chance of getting a baccalaureate degree,” he says. “Other institutions are looking for ways that they can portray themselves as being highly selective — and the way you do that, of course, is you show that there are people who want in that you won’t let in.

“The people of this state,” Hitt adds, “did not put this university in Orlando to keep people out of college.”

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.

Opportunities

As president, Hitt set out to lower some of the barriers preventing students from attending UCF. The school added campuses as far away as Clermont and Ocala and became an early advocate for online instruction. Today, 81% of all UCF students take at least one course entirely online.

Most significant, about a decade ago, the school launched a program called “DirectConnect” that guarantees admission to students who complete associate’s of arts degrees, and some associate’s of sciences degrees, at any of six surrounding community colleges. Hitt has consistently resisted pressure over the years to impose additional restrictions on the program, such as minimum GPA requirements. (The state’s 2+2 policy, by contrast, guarantees college students admission to a state university, but not necessarily the university of their choice.)

The program, since emulated by other universities, has had an enormous impact. Roughly 35,000 students have earned undergraduate degrees at UCF through DirectConnect, and transfer students now account for more than half of all UCF admissions. It has also made UCF more diverse, helping to boost the percentage of minorities in the student body from 26% to 44%.

Size, inevitably, poses problems. UCF has a student-to-teacher ratio of 31-to-1, according to the most recent federal data, the highest in Florida and one of the highest in the country. The school has for years struggled to shake the infamous taunt that UCF stands for “U Can’t Finish” because students have difficulty finding slots in the mandatory courses they must complete before graduating.

“Bigness is not better,” says Richard Vedder, director of the Center for College Affordability and Productivity at Ohio University. “You want a certain minimal scale. But after that, scale doesn’t do you much good, and the quality of students you’re taking in in order to make (growth) happen is less good, and that’s less appealing to faculty who want to go to the school and teach.”

Some other Florida universities, such as Florida International University in Miami, have followed UCF’s lead. But others have taken a much slower-growth approach than UCF. Since 1992, the year Hitt arrived in Orlando, enrollment at both the University of Florida and Florida State University has grown more slowly than the population of the state as a whole. UCF’s enrollment has grown four times as fast.

“We don’t believe it would serve either the students or the state of Florida for us to just sort of throw open the doors and strain our resources and dilute the quality of what we’re able to provide,” says Joe Glover, the University of Florida’s provost and vice president for academic affairs.

Hitt and other UCF administrators say the school does not merely churn through kids. The school engages in what Hitt calls “aggressive, intrusive” student advising designed to help struggling students and prevent dropouts. UCF has adopted “adaptive learning” strategies that use computer programs to produce personalized teaching programs for students, and predictive analytics, which help the school spot at-risk students before they run into academic trouble.

One of the statistics that Hitt likes to cite involves students who, like him, are the first in their families to go to college. On average, about 60% of first-time-in-college students graduate within six years. At UCF, that rate is 71%.

“Access is not just about getting in,” says Dale Whittaker, UCF’s provost and vice president for academic affairs. “It’s about getting the degree. And it’s not just about getting the degree; it’s getting the mastery that the degree certifies.”

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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