The University of Central Florida was founded in 1963 to fuel the talent and technology needs of America’s growing space program at the Space Coast.
From the beginning, UCF’s purpose has been to help people and organizations “Reach for the Stars,” which is the university’s official motto.
As you look across the constellation of industry, innovation and opportunity in the Orlando area, it’s impossible to miss the impact of UCF on our region. The thriving aerospace and defense industry and the emergence of Central Florida Research Park as the world’s modeling and simulation epicenter are just two examples of how UCF has catalyzed growth and established talent pipelines to some of the country’s largest employers while serving as a driver of economic prosperity.
The milestones of the past are building blocks for our future, including:
1963 – 1966: On June 10, 1963, Florida Governor Farris Bryant signed Bill 125, officially creating a new university for Central Florida to help supply the talent and technology needed to fuel America’s growing space industry and support the Space Coast. In 1965, Charles Millican was appointed as the first president. Shortly afterward, he opened the university’s first office above a drugstore in downtown Orlando. In 1966, the school’s original name, “The New State University in East Central Florida,” was changed to Florida Technological University in hopes of distinguishing an institution focused on high technology and engineering needed by the space industry. Days after the name change, the first prospective student inquiry arrived via postcard from Gaithersburg, Maryland.
1968 – 1973: In 1968, administrative offices moved from downtown Orlando to the east Orange County campus. FTU received its first research grant of $12,500 from NASA as early partnerships with industry took shape. In 1968, 90 instructors, 150 staff members and 1,948 students were on campus for the first day of classes. Black and gold were selected as the university’s official colors, and the official university seal was introduced. Early commencement speakers included NASA astronaut John Young and President Richard Nixon, who spoke to the graduating students sitting in a drained Reflecting Pond in 1973.
1974 – 1977: Music student Elizabeth Eyles recommended to President Millican that the university should have a statewide contest for the school’s alma mater. The winning song was performed during the 1974 spring commencement and has been sung proudly at every graduation ceremony since then. As more students graduate, the FTU Alumni Association is created. Yet, it was master’s student Rita Reutter ’77, who brought national attention to FTU when she was on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson telling of her time as the university’s Homecoming queen at age 58.
Millican dedicated the “Teaching Gymnasium” with significant emphasis on its use as an athletic facility for intercollegiate competition, despite the gymnasium covering just 17,235 of 112,00 total square feet. The building included a teaching auditorium, a learning resources center, space for visual arts education, science & music education, a business education lab, a typewriting lab, dozens of classrooms and faculty offices. Gov. Bob Graham recognized the building in 1981 with a Governor’s Design Award, acknowledging outstanding achievement in the development of public facilities.
1978 – 1981: Trevor Colbourn became UCF’s second president in 1978. With a diversified population, the need for a wider variety of academic programs aside from technology and science became his focus. State legislation was signed in 1978 to change the school’s name from Florida Technological University to the University of Central Florida. That same year, the College of Nursing was created to prepare the nurses that provide critical, compassionate care to patients across our state. A football team, marching band, and four master’s and one doctoral degree program were created in 1980. UCF awarded our first-ever doctoral degree to computer science major Ali Reza Hurson ’80PhD in December. At the time, UCF was the only computer science doctoral program in Florida and one of only a handful in the Southeast. The Lockheed Martin College Work Experience Program started in 1981, graduating more than 400 students each year, with 60% being offered full-time employment with Lockheed Martin.
1982 – 1989: Enrollment exceeded 14,000 students in 1982. Expansion of the campus was occurring with the development of Research Park in 1984 and the opening of Greek Park in 1985. The Center for Research and Education in Optics and Lasers opened at UCF to support the growth of Florida’s high-tech industry. Steven Altman became UCF’s third president in 1989. On the 25th anniversary of UCF, the number of total alumni had jumped to 40,000, and a master plan was developed for accommodating the growing student body, which was expected to more than double in the next 20 years.
1991 – 1997: John C. Hitt became president in 1992, as UCF saw its student enrollment jump to 20,302. As final details were occurring for the football team’s move to Division I-A in 1996, the tradition of Spirit Splash began in 1995 the student body president was accidently thrown into the Reflecting Pond.
As growth in technology was expanding in certain areas of the nation, UCF joined an alliance with the University of South Florida to work with Central Florida counties and industries to generate high-tech jobs. This organization was named the Florida High Tech Corridor, which expanded to include the University of Florida in 2005 and continues to pave the way as a leader in Florida’s increasingly diverse innovation ecosystem.
1998: New beginnings proceed as the first Pegasus Professor Award is presented to Charles Dziuban and the UCF Creed debuts highlighting the five attributes each Knight should possess — integrity, scholarship, community, creativity and excellence. Growth on campus comes with the opening of the first parking garage with 1,300 spots for students, faculty and staff. The UCF Center for Diagnostics and Drug Development awarded its first grants to six faculty researchers in their efforts to develop new drugs and new testing procedures for life-threatening diseases.
1999: UCF’s Business Incubation Program launches, helping local startup companies reach their potential faster by providing vital business development resources. Within seven years, a study by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology would name UCF’s incubator programs among the top 10 in the nation. The Burnett Honors College becomes a college of its own, serving academically excellent UCF students from all backgrounds.
2002 – 2005: In 2002, economic estimates indicate UCF and the Central Florida Research Park account for more than 35,000 direct and indirect jobs and over $2.3 billion in direct and indirect expenditures. Also, UCF’s reach into the region expands in offering more than 20 courses in nine counties. History was made by Ericka Dunlap ’05, in 2003 as she became the first African American to be crowned Miss Florida. She went on to become Miss America in 2004. An investment in growing the quality and excellence of the hospitality workforce led to the opening in 2004 of the Rosen College of Hospitality Management, thanks to the generosity of local businessman, investor and philanthropist Harris Rosen. UCF also opened the College of Optics and Photonics — expanding the influential work of the Center for Research and Education in Optics and Lasers with academic degree offerings to train more scientists in this area. Research funding surpassed the $100 million mark, and the Florida Interactive Entertainment Academy opened its doors in 2005 to future game developers and creators.
2006 – 2007: The UCF College of Medicine was established by the Florida Legislature and Governor Jeb Bush to bolster the quality of health care available to our state’s growing communities and boost economic development. An initial fiscal analysis presented by UCF to the state suggested the economic impact could eventually approach $6.4 billion with the creation of up to 25,000 well-paying jobs. As a founding member of Orlando’s growing Medical City at Lake Nona, the College of Medicine was part of a model to centralize medical treatment, research, and education through a cluster of healthcare and bioscience facilities. With the UCF Golden Knights being officially changed to the Knights, it was a perfect time to rebrand as the new on-campus Bright House Networks Stadium (currently named the FBC Mortgage Stadium) opened to a sold-out crowd against the Texas Longhorns. The stadium and UCF new 10,000-seat arena opened on back-to-back weekends.
2009 – 2012: UCF became the largest State University System school in Florida with a Fall 2009 headcount of 53,811 students. Close to 2,000 students participated in the 15-year anniversary of the Knight-Thon dance marathon to raise funds for Children’s Miracle Network. A 2009-10 study by the Florida Board of Governors found that UCF adds $7.73 billion in value to the economy. The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching designated UCF as a university with “very high research activity.”
2013: UCF set a new state university enrollment record by surpassing 60,000 students. This explosion in enrollment included UCF awarding more than 15,000 degrees for 2012-13 — the most of any school in Florida, as we worked to support the needs of our growing region with high-quality educational options and workforce talent. Our alumni continued to grow in recognition and achievement this year when Julia Pierson ’81 became the first female Secret Service director and George Kalogridis ’76 was named president of Walt Disney World Resort.
2014: UCF became a founding member in the launch of the University Innovation Alliance, a national coalition of public research universities dedicated to increasing the number and diversity of U.S. college graduates.
2016: The university was named a National Center of Academic Excellence in Cyberdefense Education by the National Security Agency and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. UCF’s Collegiate Cyber Defense Team locked up an unprecedented three-peat victory at the National Collegiate Cyber Defense Competition in San Antonio. The Florida Board of Governors unanimously voted to recognize UCF as an “Emerging Preeminent Research University,” putting the university on the path toward this distinction designed to recognize and reward high-performing and impactful universities in our state. UCF spearheads the launching the Florida Consortium of Metropolitan Research Universities, a partnership with Florida International University and the University of South Florida to help boost the talent supply and workforce opportunities for students in the state’s three-largest metropolitan areas. Together, the three universities serve 65% of Florida’s population and confer roughly half the degrees awarded in the State University System.
2017: The football team led UCF to greater recognition with a 13-0 undefeated season as the Knights became the first football program in NCAA history to go from winless to undefeated in two seasons. Bill and Melinda Gates visited UCF, and Bill wrote: “Our colleges and universities need to be bigger and better. UCF has been a pioneer in showing how that can be done. I hope other colleges and universities will learn from its success.”
Limbitless Solutions was founded by engineering students to create and donate personalized 3D-printed prosthetic arms for children, turning kids with limitations into superheroes. U.S. News & World Report launches their Best States for Education Rankings, listing Florida as the top state for higher education. UCF first appeared on U.S. News & World Report’s Most Innovative Schools list, coming in at No. 25.
2018: After 26 years of leadership, President John C. Hitt retired, and Provost and Executive Vice President Dale Whittaker was named the fifth president of UCF. College GameDay, ESPN’s iconic college football preview show, made its first-ever appearance at UCF ahead of the Knights’ nationally televised primetime matchup against Cincinnati, generating $205 million in media value. UCF launches the National Center for Integrated Coastal Research, focused on finding big-picture solutions to threats facing coastal communities.
2019: Thad Seymour, Jr. was confirmed as interim president. During his transitional time, access and academic excellence continued to be a focus. UCF Downtown, in partnership with Valencia College, opened its doors for more than 7,000 students to live, learn and work in downtown Orlando. As part of the Creative Village, it would increase access for students, provide career opportunities and foster collaboration. The first class of UCF’s Inclusive Education Services program graduated. UCF took over management of the U.S. National Science Foundation’s Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico. The U.S. Department of Education officially designated UCF as a Hispanic-Serving Institution. UCF completes IGNITE: The Campaign for UCF — raising more than $531 million in gifts and commitments and making it the most ambitious and successful fundraising campaign in the university’s history.
2020: Alexander N. Cartwright was selected as the university’s sixth president as the world began to shut down due to the COVID-19 pandemic. UCF moved to remote learning — leveraging its 25-years of expertise in this area to successfully move 6,600 courses online within a week. At the forefront of the pandemic was alumnus Darin Edwards ’97 ’10MS ’11PhD, who was key to the development of Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccine.
2021: Mackenzie Scott provided the school’s largest gift in history — a $40 million donation stemming from UCF’s focus on social mobility. The renovated John C. Hitt Library opened in February, and the new UCF Lake Nona Medical Center, our teaching hospital in partnership with HCA Healthcare, opened in March. Pegasus Professor and Trustee Chair Peter Delfyett becomes UCF’s first current faculty member to be inducted into the National Academy of Engineering.
2022: UCF awarded its 400,000th degree as research and partnerships continued to flourish. Funded research received $214.8 million during the 2022 fiscal year, and NASA selected UCF for a $35 million mission to the moon’s mysterious Gruithuisen Domes. The UCF College of Nursing received a $10 million gift from Dr. Phillips Charities, kickstarting a campaign to build a new, permanent home for our nursing programs at UCF’s Health Sciences Campus in Lake Nona. UCF received $8.8M to advance our digital twin capabilities and progress as part of the Federal Build Back Better Regional Challenge, awarded to Osceola County to position Central Florida to help lead the nation in semiconductor research, design and manufacturing.
2023: We continue to make an even greater impact through our student success and research efforts, moving closer to receiving our state’s preeminence designation as we work to fill the needs of our region and state. UCF also joins the Big 12 conference as the youngest Power 5 team in all of college athletics.
What Will the Next 60 Years Hold for our City and Region?
Orlando aims to become a model city for the future, fueled by the new era of modeling and simulation technology developed by faculty across the UCF: digital twin. As the tourism capital of the world, Orlando is elevating attractions and entertainment with the field of themed experience. With the first graduate program in themed experience, UCF is training the next generation of storytellers to advance the industry through critical partnerships, such as the UCF/Universal Creative Lab.
UCF will continue to play an integral role in Central Florida healthcare as we build upon our investments in the Medical City at Lake Nona. Our College of Medicine faculty will lead innovative research driving impactful medical breakthroughs future while training the next generation of doctors through care provided to local patients at the UCF Lake Nona Hospital. Our future College of Nursing building, which aims to open in the 2025-26 acadenic year, will help graduate more critical healthcare providers to serve our community, state and the nation.
The worlds of tomorrow are based in digital realms and off-Earth — and UCF will play a pivotal role in realizing both. With virtual persistent worlds, like the metaverse, becoming a closer reality, the insight of artificial reality, virtual reality and other experts at UCF will be in high demand. With a revitalized national interest in space, UCF draws on its roots as Space U, America’s Space University. UCF’s students and faculty are investigating the solutions for challenges related to living on the moon and beyond — while our alums are working with NASA, Space X and Blue Origin to develop the technology needed for farther exploration.
As the University for the Future, we’re sure to play a major part in shaping our region over the decades to come.