UCF President John C. Hitt delivered his annual State of the University address Tuesday at the Student Union. Faculty Senate President Reid Oetjen and Student Government Association President Melissa Westbrook also spoke to students, staff and faculty members at the Pegasus Ballroom. To view the president’s speech, click here.

President Hitt’s address:

Good afternoon, and welcome to this special assembly of Knights in the landmark 50th birthday year of UCF.

With us are representatives of our Student Government Association, Faculty Senate, and Board of Trustees; members of our faculty and staff; students; and friends of the university, including Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer. Thank you all for coming, and a big hello to our online viewers.

What an eventful anniversary year for UCF. We landed the largest research grant in school history, graduated our charter class from the College of Medicine, and set a new Florida record for enrollment in surpassing 60,000 students.

As we begin our next 50 years, I am proud to report that the state of our university is strong – and that UCF is primed for greatness on many fronts.

Today, we celebrate one of the remarkable success stories in higher education. And we explore where our quest to reach for the stars leads next.

On June 10, 1963, state leaders designated a new university for Central Florida. In a relatively short time, your hometown university has emerged from scrub pine and dirt roads to become a preeminent metropolitan research university of global impact.

Our story is one of partnership with the community. It’s a story about the enduring determination, persistence, and “can do” spirit of Central Florida. And it’s also the story of a university that almost never was.

In the late 1950s, the space race with Russia captivated America. As aerospace development at nearby Cape Canaveral gained national prominence, a Martin Company facility in south Orange County was creating a new generation of rockets and missiles.

Area business and government leaders rallied for a new “space university.” They wanted to educate students for promising space-age careers in engineering, electronics, and other technical professions.

Orange County, however, was not a certainty for the location. Orange was among nine counties in Central Florida to be considered. And later, when a location had been narrowed to two final sites, this campus was not among them.

A seven-person state board was tasked to select the site for the new university. But board members deadlocked three votes to three on two choices: an old naval air station in Seminole County, and property on South Orange Blossom trail in Orange County.

Why was a seventh and deciding vote missing? Because the seventh board member had neglected to file income taxes over the years and was, shall we say, indisposed!

Fortunately, a tip surfaced for an alternate site. Jim Robinson, the attorney for Orange County government, knew of land in remote east Orange County that might work for a new university. Local and state leaders liked what they saw. It took much effort by Jim and others to assemble the land and to arrange a deal, but 1,227 acres were approved to host the new school where we are now meeting.

Without Jim Robinson, it’s safe to say that UCF would not be where it is today – literally! Jim, would you please stand to be recognized. Thank you, Jim, for your strong support and for your many civic contributions to Central Florida.

In 1964, the new university had a location. However, neither the Legislature nor the governor wanted to pay for the site. The land was in danger of slipping away, which would have been a devastating setback.

At that crucial time, 89 local leaders and their families took extraordinary action that would determine the future. They pledged nearly $1 million with their own cash, securities, and promissory notes to secure the site for the new university.

These true believers stepped forward with no guarantees of repayment. Should the new university fail, their money likely would be forfeited.

Ultimately, Orange County commissioners supported a tax to pay for the campus site, which was donated to the state. Yet, it would take four years for those courageous pioneer supporters to be repaid.

Today, I am pleased to honor members of those families whose strong faith secured this UCF main campus that has served our region so well. Would you please stand or give us a wave as I call your name:

  • Joe Guernsey,
  • Jim and Betty Robinson,
  • and Mary Jo Davis, whose family also provided  essential property and right-of-way for this campus.
  • Unable to attend today are Malcolm and Mary Clayton, Hollis and Beverly McCall, and Kenneth and Virginia McCall.

    Let’s show these hometown heroes our appreciation.

    Despite this crucial step, the new university lacked money to build facilities and to hire people. Sounds familiar! However, another game changer soon emerged.

    In the fall of 1964, a young Orlando lawyer, Charlie Gray, orchestrated the winning longshot gubernatorial campaign of Haydon Burns of Jacksonville.

    As a reward for his campaign manager, Governor Burns agreed to fund the yet-unnamed university.

    That young lawyer from nearly 50 years ago who helped to get the university established is here, along with his lovely wife. Charlie, will you and Saundra please stand.

    Thank you, Charlie, for negotiating one of the greatest deals ever for Central Florida.

    Of course, many folks played important roles in starting the university. On October 19, 1965, Dr. Charles Millican, a college administrator and a Baptist minister, became the first president.

    Charlie also was the first employee of the university, and he is shown here in his temporary first office downtown. On his first day at a school with no name, Charlie had no desk, no secretary, no campus buildings, no faculty, no staff, no students, no stadium … He faced a few challenges!

    And, by the way, the first time Charlie drove to the site of the future campus, he couldn’t find it! He returned to town for better directions to the land that he and his future colleagues would shape so well.

    Classes for Florida Technological University opened on October 7, 1968, with 1,948 students, a faculty of 90, and 150 staff members. The new school offered 55 degree programs, which was very ambitious for a new university.

    From the get-go, talented, engaged, and caring faculty and staff members have been a hallmark of our campus experience. Without their efforts, UCF could not be the vibrant, life-changing force that it is has become.

    Today, several charter faculty members still serve in either full- or part-time capacities with the university they helped to launch. Will Drs. Beth Barnes, Bob Bledsoe, Dave Block, Frank Juge, and Ken White please stand so that we can show you our appreciation for your many contributions and roles over the years.

    At least two original staff members currently work full-time at UCF.

    Terri Jump worked in the first campus bookstore in 1968 when it was in the basement of the library building. Terri, would you please stand. The current UCF employee with the earliest hiring date came aboard in May 1966 as the fourth woman hired – just six months after Charlie Millican started! Sonia Cirocco worked downtown with Charlie before this campus had offices, and she helped to develop our university seal. Sonia, will you please stand so we can recognize you.

    At our first commencement in 1970, NASA astronaut John Young addressed 423 graduates. And, in 1972, our university graduated its charter class of four-year students, including Patricia MacKown, a political science and pre-law major.

    Patti started working at UCF in 1979. Today, she is the only graduate of that charter class who is a full-time staff member at UCF. Patti, will you please stand.

    Charlie Millican was a thoughtful visionary who set the stage for the UCF we know today. He originated the UCF motto “reach for the stars.” He established a culture that encouraged administrators, staff, faculty, and students to think big. And Charlie recognized that engaging local industry leaders in creating a university curriculum would become essential to our local economy.

    He gave his successors – Trevor Colbourn, Steve Altman, and me – a strong foundation from which to boldly pursue the best interests of our campus and our community.

    Now, I direct you to the big screens for more on the compelling story of UCF’s evolution.

    Today, the site that initially eluded Charlie is home to a vibrant university that cannot be overlooked as a vital force for

  • the prosperity of Central Florida,
  • the growth of Florida’s high-tech innovation economy,
  • and the advancement of global solutions.
  • Aside from our main campus, we have nine regional campuses.

    Our UCF Pegasus logo also appears on buildings that we share at Eastern Florida State College, Lake- Sumter State College, Seminole State College, and Valencia College.

    Through WUCF TV, Central Florida’s primary PBS channel, the university reaches more than 4 million television viewers.

    Our students originate from all 67 Florida counties, 50 states, and 148 countries.

    We tell our students that youth should not hinder the pursuit of their dreams, which is advice that also works well for universities.

    I am pleased to tell you that last year UCF ranked 12th nationally among public institutions with its number of National Merit Scholars in the freshman class. All of the universities ahead of UCF originated in the 18th or 19th centuries!

    This fall, our total enrollment of National Merit Scholars has reached an all-time high of 247. And, our student minority population increased to 40 percent, also a new school record.

    Our students are attracted by top-notch faculty and world-class academic excellence in such fields as simulation and training, photonics and lasers, digital media, and hospitality management. And, our researchers are working on breakthroughs for diseases, clean energy, and nano particles.

    UCF excels in producing an educated, highly skilled workforce that our region requires for a high quality of life. This past year, for the first time, UCF led all state universities in Florida in the number of degrees awarded – 15,113, exceeding the runner-up, the University of Florida, by 925 degrees.

    Most of our degree holders settle in the Orlando region, and it is no coincidence that an article last year in Forbes magazine ranked Orlando eighth among U.S. cities that are getting smarter the fastest.

    The goal of this growth is not to be big, but to meet the demands and needs of Central Florida.

    Providing access to a high-quality education to as many deserving and qualified students as we can is essential. Why? Because education transforms lives. A college degree has been, and continues to be, the single most important factor for a successful career – and a better future.

    As a first-generation college graduate myself, I know first hand the life-changing impact of a college education.

    UCF opens wide the doors to education with such programs as Direct Connect to UCF, our national model partnership with the region’s four state colleges. This collaboration guarantees acceptance into UCF for graduates of those vital institutions.

    UCF stands for opportunity, and I am pleased to announce a new admissions program that will provide access to UCF for top high school students throughout Florida.

    Starting next fall, The Top 10 Knights program at UCF will guarantee admission to all public and private high school graduates in Florida who qualify as being in the top 10 percent of academic achievers in their graduating class. And, yes, the guarantee extends to high-performing homeschooled students, as well.

    This program is among the few of its kind in the nation. It aims to reward academic success and streamline the university selection process, while bringing more of the Florida’s best and brightest students to UCF. That’s a winning combination for everyone.

    We are also pleased to employ more than 10,000 people at UCF. Yet, it is our broader efforts with our community to drive economic development that help make the UCF story so special.

    At Lake Nona, the UCF College of Medicine anchors a medical city that has captured the imagination of Central Florida and the attention of economic and health leaders nationwide.

    A thriving cluster of biomedical facilities at Lake Nona features more than $2 billion in construction so far. The healthcare partners at the Medical City include the Sanford-Burnham Institute for Medical Research, a University of Florida research facility, and the Nemours Children’s Hospital. And one of the largest veterans’ hospitals in America is moving toward completion.

    The extraordinary progress at the Medical City did not come easily. In fact, the uphill battle to create the College of Medicine has striking similarities to the early days of UCF. Those included, at one time or another, a long line of skeptics, huge obstacles with funding and state political support, and a remote location of scrub grass and pine trees.

    Yet, once again, a determined coalition of Central Floridians responded.

    A major landowner and million-dollar donors stepped forward, solid reasoning earned political support from an enlightened governor and legislative leaders, and state approval to establish a medical school converted skeptics into supporters.

    It’s a wonderful story, and here’s more about it from NBC’s Nightly News.

    By now, it is clear that UCF doesn’t just exceed the standards, it often creates them.

    For instance, last year, Ph.D. physics graduate Kevin Stevenson led a team of UCF researchers in discovering UCF’s first planet candidate, ingeniously titled “UCF 1.01.”

    In April, UCF was the sole recipient of the most prestigious diversity award in higher education. The National Association of Diversity Officers in Higher Education selected UCF for its progress in promoting and sustaining innovative diversity efforts within the campus community.

    Earlier this year, UCF student-athlete Aurieyall Scott, a senior this fall from Greenbelt, Maryland, became UCF’s first NCAA national champion of any sport. She won the 60 meters race in the NCAA indoor track championships.

    Aurieyall recently turned pro but is finishing her education at UCF. She wanted to be here today but is traveling.

    Of course, we are also proud of our many successful alumni. In April, President Obama named UCF graduate Julia Pierson as the first woman director of the Secret Service!

    And UCF alumnus George Kalogridis has become president of Walt Disney World. Most of our alumni have graduated in the last decade or so, and, to borrow a line from pop singer Katy Perry, the world is going to hear them roar!

    Meanwhile, UCF is reaching for the stars on many other fronts.

    We are exploring new ways to

  • improve student success through better retention and graduation rates,
  • develop more programs of relevance and impact,
  • and increase the number of well-paying jobs throughout our region.
  • UCF strives to be America’s preeminent metropolitan research university, and we took a big step forward by welcoming the largest single research grant in school history.

    The $55 million from NASA over the next five years will allow for unprecedented imaging of the Earth’s upper atmosphere. And the grant distinguishes UCF as the first Florida university to lead a NASA mission.

    It was NASA, by the way, that provided the first research grant to UCF in 1968. It was a whopping $12,500!

    This latest grant from NASA illustrates that, more so than ever, not even the sky is the limit for UCF!

    Meanwhile, the national reach of UCF continues to grow. UCF is exploring a consortium with Arizona State and other leading strong-growth universities to find ways to make college more accessible to students of all economic backgrounds.

    It troubles me that, at the most selective state universities across the country, up to two-thirds of the students admitted are from households with the highest income.

    Folks, we cannot let this stratification go unanswered. I believe our emerging alliance offers hope for creating Next Generation Universities where family income is no longer a barrier to achieving excellence. Stay tuned!

    UCF’s national visibility is also growing through membership in the new American Athletic Conference. This opportunity means unprecedented exposure, greater revenue potential, and stronger athletic competition.

    For instance, this season, the defending national champions of men’s and women’s basketball will play our Knights at the CFE Arena. On New Year’s Eve, the Louisville men’s team will play here, followed on New Year’s Day by the UCONN women’s team. How’s that for taking on the best?

    Our entry into a new conference also bolsters our rivalry with the University of South Florida.

    I encourage you to mark your calendars for the day after Thanksgiving when our football team hosts USF in the “I-4 Corridor Clash.” Folks, this game should be lots of fun ­– provided the right team wins!

    And speaking of winning, how about our undefeated Knights football team? How thrilling it is to be off to our best start in 25 years and to claim an historic win  at Penn State. Are you ready for South Carolina on Saturday? You know, I am a little excited about our great start!

    When I came here in 1992, I established five key goals that still guide our university today:

  • to offer the best undergraduate education available in Florida
  • to achieve international prominence in key programs of graduate study and research
  • to provide international focus to our curricula and research programs
  • to become more inclusive and diverse
  • and to be America’s leading partnership university.
  • The most important of those goals remains to be America’s leading partnership university. It is through partnerships that we best leverage our resources to tackle problems, to create opportunities, and to make our greatest contributions to society.

    In his address to our graduates in May, former President Bill Clinton touted the successes of UCF and Orlando through partnerships.

    Our triumphs, he said, and I quote, “are all testimony to the fact that no matter how smart we are, how righteous we are, how close to the truth we are, we all do better when we work together, when we share prosperity, when we share responsibilities, when we share leadership.

    I concur with the president, and I am pleased to announce that UCF’s drive to be America’s leading partnership university has reached a new level.

    Earlier today, we learned that UCF has secured the trademarks for the slogans “America’s Leading Partnership University” and “America’s Partnership University.” What we have long said – and known – about UCF is now official for the world to see in a bold new way.

    From its beginning, this institution was a partnership university. And its greatest partner was, is, and always will be, our community.

    Time and again over 50 years, UCF and Central Florida have proven that we are a “can do” community because of what we can do together.

    The great UCF story has many contributing authors. They include students, faculty, staff, alumni, trustees, elected officials, government leaders, businesses, non-profit organizations, donors, and many others.

    Often overlooked are the achievements of our first ladies: Frances Millican, Beryl Colbourn, Judy Altman, and my all-time favorite, Martha Hitt, who for more than 21 years has been a gracious, caring, and giving force for UCF.

    On many fronts, UCF is just beginning to see what it can be – and what it can do. And our greatest advances, triumphs, and achievements are ahead of us.

    Yet, as from the beginning, funding challenges abound. Significant state cuts since 2007 have hindered our ability to add faculty, to build or expand facilities, and to boost scholarships.

    We must control more of our own destiny. That is why we are pursuing a multi-year fundraising campaign. So far, this Campaign for UCF has produced more than $100 million of its target goal of $500 million, and we are just warming up.

    It has been said that the best way to predict the future is to invent it. As we fashion the future of UCF, let us be bold, fearless, and innovative. And let us always remember that UCF is a place that transforms the impossible into the inevitable.

    Thank you, friends, for 50 years of remarkable results. Thank you for all you do for UCF. And, as Charlie Millican would say, let’s keep reaching for the stars in the next 50 years! GO KNIGHTS!