If you think about it, Interim President Thad Seymour Jr.’s life so far can be seen in three acts.
“In my DNA is this belief that education is the single most important thing that can improve a person’s opportunities, their quality of life, their livelihood and their impact on the world.”
The opening act was spent on college campuses, first as the son of a professor turned college administrator, then as a student pursuing multiple degrees. The second was his business career, where he held senior executive roles in the healthcare and technology industries, before retiring as senior vice president for the Tavistock Development Company. The third act has been his return to higher education, and more specifically UCF, where he helped develop the university’s strategic plan, led efforts on the downtown campus and was named vice president for partnerships and chief innovation officer.
It’s not that his life has been a drama. In fact, talking to him, you’ll notice his keen sense of humor. But there is something to be found in his story coming full circle from his days at Dartmouth — first as the child of an academic, then later as a young man studying history — to his position leading UCF at a critical time in its history. And there is something to be said for the lessons we learn as children informing who we become as adults. For Seymour, that is seen most clearly in his views about the power of education.
“In my DNA is this belief that education is the single most important thing that can improve a person’s opportunities, their quality of life, their livelihood and their impact on the world,” Seymour says. “And education should not be a privilege, but rather widely available to expand opportunity and strengthen our society.”
Here, we asked Seymour about who he’s been, what he’s done, and where he sees UCF going in the future.
LJC: I hear you were once a volunteer firefighter. Tell me about that.
TS: I was. After I graduated from Dartmouth, I was teaching at a boarding school in a small town in New Hampshire, which only had a few hundred residents. They only had a volunteer fire department but not very many firefighters.
The headmaster had the idea of getting juniors and seniors involved with the fire department, as it would be a good experience for the students while helping the community. He said, “Ah, here’s a gullible young history teacher. Maybe he’ll lead it.” I thought, “Oh my gosh, this is awesome.”
There’s not much better for young men and women than to have the alarm go off, which in this town was just a big siren, and to all go running to the school van. I had this magnetic light that plugged into the lighter. I’d put it on the top of the vehicle and go racing down the hill to the firehouse where we’d put our gear on and board the trucks to the fire. Usually, it was a chimney fire or a smoking car or something like that, though there was the -20 degree night when the only gas station in town burned to the ground. Not our finest hour. But 40 years later, the student fire brigade is still going strong.
“There’s a tendency to overcomplicate problem solving, organizational design or any strategy you take on. But if you can boil something down to its essence, everything falls into place.”
LJC: What are some of the biggest lessons you’ve learned from business, higher education — and firefighting?
TS: They’re all the same, actually. (laughs)
You know, I could go a bunch of different directions, but the biggest one — and maybe this comes with experience — is just keep it simple. There’s a tendency to overcomplicate problem solving, organizational design or any strategy you take on. But if you can boil something down to its essence, everything falls into place. We tried to do that with the strategic plan. Even though UCF is a big, complex organization with multiple stakeholders, we found a way to take it back to a handful of key guiding principles and measurable objectives that everything else rolled up to.
It’s really hard work to get to that, but once you do, everything else gets easier.
Having worked in a lot of different kinds of organizations, including nonprofits, I’ve learned that the same logic applies everywhere. If you can’t articulate the short list of things that you’re really about, it’s hard to get everyone to pull in the same direction. But if you do, leading and managing gets really easy because people just take it on and do the things that help you get there. It’s an overused word, but “alignment” so applies. And if you can get an organization aligned to a shared vision and a common set of goals and objectives, well, just get out of the way because good things are going to happen.
LJC: You and your wife have raised several puppies for Canine Companions for Independence over the years. Can you tell me why you became involved and how many dogs you’ve fostered?
TS: They’re wonderful dogs, and it combines something we care about, which is caring for animals, with increasing independence for children and adults with disabilities.
My wife, Katie, really is the one who drives this. When our kids were little, we had a neighbor across the street who raised puppies for Southeast Guide Dogs for the Blind. Katie always admired what she was doing, and when Katie retired she immediately applied to Canine Companions for Independence. We got our first dog, Fergus, nearly 7 years ago. We’re now raising our fifth puppy, Claret. Only about half of the puppies graduate from professional training, the six- to nine-month program that follows the work done by the volunteer puppy raisers. Fergus and Zanna, our “change of career dogs,” are back living with us. We’ll work on 30 commands and socialization with Claret until May 2020, and we have high hopes for her.
“[My position at Tavistock] was the chance for me to apply the principles of creating an innovation district by bringing organizations and people and fresh ideas together in a dense, evolving urban environment.”
LJC: As senior vice president for Tavistock, you led business development for Lake Nona and Medical City. What are some of the challenges and successes you had in that role?
TS: Working at Tavistock was unbelievable fun. It was this chance to work with a great team of people and a visionary owner to imagine how you might turn a greenfield site into a transformative city, basically. I worked in many areas, but the part I focused on was Medical City.
It was the chance for me to apply the principles of creating an innovation district by bringing organizations and people and fresh ideas together in a dense, evolving urban environment. It was all about creating intersections and collisions among exceptional people that turned into new ideas and created significant value for the region and beyond.
That’s why I’m passionate about what’s happening at Lake Nona with our Academic Health Sciences Center and at UCF Downtown. Every innovation district around the world is anchored by a great university that engages in leading-edge research and provides a robust talent pipeline. We’ve proved that in what we’ve done here at UCF, at Research Park adjacent to the main campus, at the Rosen College of Hospitality Management in the heart of the tourism district, and more broadly. UCF is a talent and idea factory, which is essential to any innovation district.
LJC: How do you plan on ensuring UCF continues its positive momentum?
TS: First, we have to be aggressive this year about working on things that will make us a better place for the next decade or more. They are things we can get done quickly. They’re outlined in the four priorities I’ve laid out. The first is to strengthen our operations. Some of that is about fixing areas where we made mistakes and to learn from that, as well as finding the right leadership to help ensure that we don’t have missteps in the future. It is also about making us a better operating organization in support of our core mission. There’s a lot there that we will work on.
Second is rebuilding trust. I think we’re making good progress, but that must be an ongoing focus for us.
Third, to continue doing as well as we have been, we’ll need to attract more resources. In the private sector, investors invest in people and organizations that are doing things really well. And we need to think that way, too. What are we doing so well that others will want to invest in and bring new resources to? That could be through philanthropy, partnerships, sponsorships or government. The state of Florida awards funding based on successes, so we need to continue to focus on our performance metrics and our preeminence status.
That ties in with my fourth goal, which is investing in excellence. Our size is an incredible asset, and we have made enormous progress in getting better while we’ve grown. As we pause that growth a bit and continue to invest in excellence, the sky’s the limit in terms of what the results are. And I think it’s going to be in classroom experiences. It’s going to be in research. It’s going to be in the ways we develop our people — our faculty and staff are our greatest asset. It’s going to be in the ways we work with the community to continue to have an impact.
The whole framing of our strategic plan is based on the idea that our impact is a function of our scale and our excellence. There’s enormous opportunity to work on that and a real hunger in the organization to do that, which I’m so excited about. We have an exceptionally talented faculty working with passionate and committed students who will apply their UCF experience to make the world a better place. I couldn’t be more optimistic about what we can do together as we move forward.