President Alexander N. Cartwright is the first guest on the UCF podcast, Knights Do That. In this episode, he talks with host Alex Cumming about his experience as a first-generation college student, what it was like becoming a university president during a pandemic, how higher education has impacted his life, and how he believes servant leadership is key to moving the university forward.
Produced by UCF, the podcast highlights students, faculty, staff, administrators and alumni who do incredible things on campus, in the community and around the globe.
Alexander Cartwright: That’s probably what attracted me more than anything is just the location, the history of what UCF is. When I saw the diversity of the student body, I still remember my reaction was this place looks like the future of America.
Alex Cumming: Hey Knight Nation. Welcome to the first episode of the Knights Do That podcast. For our very first episode, I had the honor of talking with UCF’s president Alexander Cartwright. President Cartwright joined UCF just over a year ago after serving as the chancellor at the University of Missouri with an appointment as a professor in the electrical engineering and computer science department.
In this first episode, we’ll talk about his experience as a first-generation college student, what it was like becoming a university president during a pandemic, how higher education has impacted his life, and how he believes servant leadership is key to moving the university forward.
I am so excited to share this conversation with you and hope that you get to know President Cartwright on a deeper level, just as I did.
President Cartwright. It’s such a pleasure and an honor to have you here in the office today and to get to speak with you. How’s it going?
Alexander Cartwright: Good. It’s great to be here.
Alex Cumming: Well, thank you for joining us. So President Cartwright, I wanted to ask you growing up in the Bahamas, what was that like? What do you miss most about it?
Alexander Cartwright: Well, it was a long time ago now, but you know, at that time, I was born in a country that was under British rule and then became an independent country in ’73 and really was able to see how countries actually transform and how different governance is when you go away from being under one rule to being an independent country and all the growing pains associated with that.
There were many challenges with education system. And how do we go from not actually providing education at the K–12 level for everybody that was there to figuring out how we now expand that many other individuals. And so the school systems weren’t the best. Not for lack of wanting them to be better, just a lack of resources and the lack of people who are educated and able to teach at that level. And so, when I went into the public schools, then around the education was lacking in some areas. And that impacted me, of course, when I came over here finally.
But I’ll say, the Bahamas is a wonderful place to grow up wonderful people and it taught me a lot about how much people matter and how much you care about each other and that it isn’t about what you have or what you can do. But rather how we collectively as a society can help each other.
Alex Cumming: Working with the resources that you have.
Alexander Cartwright: Yes.
Alex Cumming: And seeing that in your youth, and then coming to school here in the States, do you see seeing the dynamic shift, the change and how certain countries work with what they have.
Alexander Cartwright: Yeah. So when I came over, of course I didn’t get to come to high school. I actually got a GED. So I didn’t get that opportunity to actually go to high school here.
But I did see a huge difference, the resources that are available and if you’re able to get access to resources, how many doors that can open. And not everybody has that opportunity in life. Unfortunately, there are a lot of incredibly talented people that just don’t ever get that opportunity, and when you do it makes you much more appreciative of it, I think.
And I think that’s something that I’ve always kept close to who I am as a person is having those opportunities. I’m thankful every day. I wake up every day thankful for what I have compared to where we were. But not everybody, like I said, not everybody gets an opportunity, and we have to figure out ways to give more people that opportunity to experience what’s possible.
Alex Cumming: You’re so right. I mean, how do you believe that your experience as being a first gen student and growing up in the Bahamas led to you where you are now — the president of UCF?
Alexander Cartwright: It was different of course, to grow up there. It’s a different type of culture. It’s one that I was immersed in, of course, and, felt very, very comfortable in, being in the Bahamas.
And when I came over to the U.S. I had to adjust. I had to adjust to understanding what does it mean to be in a culture that is a different culture that has different values that uses the language, even though it’s English uses language slightly differently, and phrases could mean different things.
And trying to understand certain words and being somewhat embarrassed at the time. I didn’t want to ask people what a word meant, because I really didn’t understand what they meant. They would use terms that I’d never heard and words, small words that are pretty obvious to people in the U.S. but to me, I didn’t know what they were talking about.
Alex Cumming: Right.
Alexander Cartwright: I didn’t know exactly what it meant and being 17 or 18, you don’t want to ask, “What does that word actually mean?” So that was a transition, but it is because of having that opportunity, right, is that every time that I had an opportunity to do anything that I thought could help me to move forward, I was willing to take that risk.
I was willing to try to get a GED. I was then willing to go to a community college that was an hour away and take classes at that time, actually, virtually . We would sit in one little room, a small town in Tipton, Iowa, and take classes that were being taught in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, which is over an hour away. And it was all by video. And just doing whatever it took to actually keep moving forward.
And, when I figured out how to maybe be able to go on to the University of Iowa taking the risks to do it. It’s uncomfortable to take risk. We’re really, almost all of us are, sort of, we’re comfortable with the situation that we know, and that unknown is really concerning and certainly was for me, but I again took that chance and went on to the University of Iowa.
And then when it was introduced to me to try to go to switch from business into engineering again, I was willing to take the risk. And I think that again comes from having come from a situation where I felt like I really didn’t have anything, so I didn’t have anything to lose. So if things didn’t go perfectly, what’s the worst that could happen? I’d go back and get my degree in accounting and still do very well because it was just such a different, rich environment where I had so much opportunity when he came here that I just felt like I could try things and do things.
And that continued in everything that I did when I had always planned on leaving undergraduate and getting a job. That was my goal. But ultimately when I found out about graduate school business, I was like, maybe I should try that. And I did. And then got a Ph.D. and really wanted to contribute back and become a faculty member and be able to teach and touch lives.
And that’s why I went. And when I got the job at the University of Buffalo, I was so appreciative of getting the job. And then to be able to do that as every opportunity came along, it just took a chance, took a chance, took a chance. And I think that’s from that background of realizing that there were such limited resources in the Bahamas that there was an opportunity here to do things that I certainly would never have dreamt of.
And so I think that’s what helped me along the way is, being able to understand and appreciate all that I had an opportunity to do. And again, recognizing that, I know there were many people who never got that opportunity.
Alex Cumming: You speak a lot about opportunities, these risks, these opportunities that presented themselves to you.
Alexander Cartwright: Yeah.
Alex Cumming: And you took the risk, you put yourself out there.
Alexander Cartwright: Yeah.
Alex Cumming: And going from, community college coming state side, and getting higher education.
Alexander Cartwright: Yeah.
Alex Cumming: It seems that a lot of these. Opportunities you found, came through education.
Alexander Cartwright: Oh yeah. Yeah. Education is, I will always be indebted to higher ed because it’s changed my life and I know it’s changed my children’s lives, because if I hadn’t been able to do that, they certainly would not have experienced what they’ve experienced as children and go on to college. And, you know, they came, when they were younger, they knew that they were going to go to a university.
Alex Cumming: Yeah.
Alexander Cartwright: It was not a question. They knew that was part of what they were going to do. Not everybody has that environment. And I think that just shows how much it can change everybody. Once you educate one person, it changes a lot of people in their lives. And that’s what this is about. So I give a lot of credit to higher ed for allowing me to take those risks.
And of course I was lucky too, in that at that time universities were really quite heavily supported by the state and the federal government and the aid that I was able to get — Pell grants. And at that time student loans where you get the student loan and you didn’t have to pay interest on them until you graduated.
Interest didn’t start accruing until I think it was six months after I graduated. So as long as I stayed in school all the way through my Ph.D., my loan amounts were the same. Then eventually they started taking off after I got out. That was a different, I was surprised and pleasantly surprised that there was such an opportunity to do that. And so we took advantage of that and I think long-term that benefited me tremendously.
Alex Cumming: UCF is nothing. If not a place of opportunity, UCF has given so much to where I am today would not happen without my family coming through UCF and giving me the education opportunities that I have today to sit here with yourself.
So education does open so many doors in ways you might not even realize and you’re not helping just yourself, but you’re helping people around you, your community, your family, the people that your children…
Alexander Cartwright: Yes. UCF has a place with lots of opportunities. And I think what we need to do is just continue to make it as easy as possible for people to have those opportunities, because we know that as they’re given the opportunities and given the support that sometimes they need, that they’ll excel. Right. And then they’ll go on and they’ll change many other lives. So I think the more we can do that, the better off we all will be in the long run.
Alex Cumming: I agree. You recently just reached your one-year milestone of being the president here at UCF. Congratulations.
Alexander Cartwright: Yes. Thank you.
Alex Cumming: What drew you to the university?
Alexander Cartwright: When I first started looking at UCF, I didn’t know a lot about UCF. I’ve told this story before is that I knew about the optics program here because my research was in optics and photonics.
And so I knew that it was this school somewhere in Florida that had an incredible collection of people in optics and photonics that made it rival many top tier institutions in that area. But that it was, a smaller school. It was a growing school. I didn’t know how much it had grown when I first started looking at it. I didn’t know the history of being started as a STEM school that was really intended, you know, to help with the Space Coast and the location here in Orlando and what that means for access to all of Central Florida and the Space Coast and all of the opportunities here.
And so the more I learned about this institution, the more I started to recognize that it’s one of those special places where for all that it’s accomplished at that time in 57 years, it had so much more potential. And you don’t have a lot of times in your life when you, when an opportunity like that comes up, where you look at something and you go, yeah, it’s done a lot, but what’s amazing is how much more we could do there.
And that’s what was exciting, and how much people here want it to do more. Cause they still think that many of the people involved with UCF understand that this is an institution that has accomplished a tremendous amount in a short period of time. But I think they still have that fire that they want to do more. That we can accomplish more and it’s in the partnerships that that can happen. And so when I started to see that, I started to see all of the things — the number of engineers that were, I have to admit I’m an electrical engineer. And I was shocked at how many engineering students we had. It really was when I first saw it, and how many science majors we have. Initially I was like, I’m not sure if I’ll be a good fit there. But then when I saw all of that, I was like, maybe I could fit there. That, that actually, you know, that’s a lot bigger in terms of stamina, other things. And maybe I could be accepted because it’s important that people accept and want to have whoever it is as president. That it’s someone who’s a good fit to the institution.
I started to feel that that was possible, right? That we have so many first-generation students, so many Pell eligible students. So many people that I, see, and I feel like I look at them and I remember who I am and where I came from. And I, think, wow, you know, if I could help them the way that people helped me that could make a difference. And it just simply was how much I learned about the institution, how much had been accomplished and the commitment that I saw here among all of the trustees, the board of governors, the state itself in the, the state’s very proud of having the No. 1 higher education system in the country, and we want to stay No. 1. And that means to stay No. 1, you have to have all of your schools performing at their best. That means something for us. That means we are going to have the support. We need to continue to push forward and they want us to be exceptional and we can make decisions that allow us to become better.
Those are important things for this institution. So that’s probably what attracted me more than anything is just the location, the history of what UCF is. When I saw the diversity of the student body, I still remember my reaction was this place looks like the future of America. Our student body looks like a future of America.
We have the opportunity to be the university of the future for this country. And that’s what I think is exciting is we can do something that other universities just aren’t in a position to do. And, that’s interesting to me, that gets me excited about might be possible.
Alex Cumming: I love that: the university of the future. What was the hardest part for yourself becoming the president of a university during a pandemic? It must’ve been an interesting transition to look at the layout of the university and say, I’m coming in and there’s so much opportunity, but we have to work through this at the time.
Alexander Cartwright: The hardest parts were probably No. 1, getting to know people. That was definitely, I put that right at the top. It was hard. You couldn’t meet people in person. Everything was virtual and you don’t get to know people the same way, right? Is that you only know people from a business viewpoint and that’s not sufficient as a leader. People need to know you as a person, know what you believe in and really know how you’re going to make decisions. And without them knowing me, that’s hard. It’s hard to trust when you don’t know people. So first just getting to know even just the senior leadership team. And I still think we have a long ways to go there because we’re finally getting back to the last couple of months, you know, people are getting vaccinated and we were able to get back together and starting to know each other a lot better.
So I think that’ll make things continue to move forward. I think having the patience that at the same time, that when you come in, you want to start thinking about the future and you want to start thinking about where we’re going to head, but having the patience to recognize that there’s so many other concerns among all of our faculty and staff and students at that time about COVID, that our focus had to be on COVID.
Alex Cumming: Right.
Alexander Cartwright: We had to think about what are we going to do? How are we going to manage this? And that had to be almost every day that we were thinking about what is it we’re doing around COVID and how are we going to manage through this and what decisions we’re going to make next that are going to allow us to move forward.
Whilst you’re continuing to try to run the university and that’s a hard thing because there’s also an expectation from lots of people that you get a new leader and they want to see the vision for the future. They want to see what exactly you’re going to map out as the next steps. And with all the uncertainty that was going on it would’ve not have been the best use of our time to, at that point, start planning for what we’re going to do when we didn’t even know when the pandemic would end. We really didn’t. I mean, that’s, what’s looking back, right, is that look at it now and the vaccine and things are starting to normalize but a year ago we had no idea.
A year ago we didn’t think it would potentially last this long. And then after a while you start realizing maybe this thing’s going to go on for two years or more. We didn’t know financially what was going to happen to the economy. All of those were unknowns. And so we had to focus where the attention was needed — to keep the university moving, to keep doing the things that helps the university to be in a stronger position. And I think the only way that happened was with the tremendous staff that we have here. It’s tremendous people that I have working with me. We had so many people that just stepped up and they made it easy.
They made it much easier. And I could have ever imagined coming into a university, this magnitude, having to figure out what all we needed to be doing. It would never have happened without all the people that stepped up. And every day, I’m going to be thankful for that. A lot of people were there and made this transition this past year much easier than I think anyone could ever imagine.
Alex Cumming: Coming from that, what was the most rewarding part of it all? These amazing people that you got to work with seeing them. And there’s so much that you have to think about. When you were being thankful, what were saying you know, I’m glad that we have these amazing staff. What came as the most rewarding part of all that for yourself?
Alexander Cartwright: The rewarding part is seeing that our university was able to continue to move forward, that we were able to get students on campus, that we were able to have some events and continue to see students move forward, get the classes that they needed.
And when we were worried last summer about what our enrollment might be and whether people would actually be coming to school in the fall and the provost and I are the first ones to say, you know, we kind of blew it on that one. That really all the projections were that people were not going to select to go to school this past year.
And so we made some decisions about how we recruit and bring more students into the university. And we had no idea how effective those efforts would be. And our enrollment went up 3% during a time when many institutions around this country went down. And that again was a shocker. And one that I think for all of us made me step back and realize that like I’ve always said, this is a special place. That actually indicated how special this place was is that we did things differently. And I think students chose to come here because we have, we’ve had a history of being very strong in digital learning. We’ve always had a tremendous amount of classes online. So our faculty, a lot of them are used to how to teach online and sort of, the pedagogy that’s needed. That’s different than, you know, it’s not just a simple as just putting up a lecture in zoom, right? You change some ways that you teach and our faculty knew how to do that.
And I think that helped us because we had that reputation of being an institution where a lot of our students do take online classes and do benefit from digital learning. That’s just a lot of different circumstances that we would never have guessed could all come together like that. And I, think that’s something that helped us move forward. So that was very rewarding. And of course, then you fast forward to being able to have graduation in-person.
Alex Cumming: Oh yeah.
Alexander Cartwright: And seeing people walk across the stage and understanding that we really are starting to get out of this pandemic and that you could see the next phase, that we’ll be able to do so much more going into the future.
Alex Cumming: I’m so excited to see it all. Recently, you just had your first commencement and graduation. How was that experience for yourself?
Alexander Cartwright: It was amazing because, I always enjoy graduation and I love seeing the entire event of graduation because it’s such a joyous time for so many people, and it makes you feel good about what you’re doing at a university,because people are able to achieve their dreams graduate and, then go on and do things they want to do. But it was honestly probably more special than normal this year when you’re able to see people in person and know that they still made it through, graduated.
Now they’re going out and they’ll do great things. And so seeing that many people walk across the stage and the fact that we were able to figure out a way to do it physically distanced and everything that we needed to do to be able to do it indoors. That was all really important. And I feel good about what we did, and I look forward to how we can celebrate all of those students graduated that didn’t get that opportunity. What we could do for them in the future. So I’m looking forward to how it it’ll be different in the fall again, because it’ll probably be a little more packed in those places than we were.
Alex Cumming: How would you describe shared governance at UCF?
Alexander Cartwright: So shared governance is a term that’s always been used in terms of how many universities run.
And what we do is it’s actually, to me, it’s about servant leadership. It’s about the fact that as a leader at institutions like this, where you have so much talent, so much expertise around you — we’re surrounded by faculty who are world leaders in their areas, they really know their area. I don’t know their areas. And you have that environment when you start with that, you generally end up being surrounded by exceptional staff because they want to be in that environment with those incredibly talented and world renowned scholars in their fields. And so we have great staff.
And when you bring that together, the best thing you can do as a leader is create an environment where people are able to contribute to the decisions at the university. And to make sure that you have people weighing in on some of the more difficult decisions so that you’re getting the input and advice that could really help.
Alex Cumming: Oh yeah.
Alexander Cartwright: And when you think about what we do, we have faculty senate, we have staff council. We have lots of infrastructure that already inherently encourages shared governance. The faculty have a say. The faculty will talk about curriculum. The faculty will recommend to us a number of different activities.
I would say, even during the past year, a lot of the decisions we made around COVID and the pandemic we benefited from shared governance because we listened. We listened to people when they were concerned about different things and yeah, maybe we didn’t end up exactly where they may have wanted us to be, but we adjusted based on the feedback and based on the input we were getting and recognizing that we have people that have more knowledge about areas than we have as the leaders. That’s important.
And so I think that’s the key part of shared governance, but that then goes into lots of other parts of how we operate as an institution. It’s how we trust that our committees are going to review and assess and recommend what we should be doing based on what they’ve learned. And then we’re going to take all of that into account as we make decisions. Generally, we try to really go along with the recommendations because a lot of the recommendations are exceptional. They’re really good. You would never come up with those recommendations on your own. That’s the power of shared governance. Ultimately as the leader, you have to make decisions. But the more input you can get, the better your decision.
Alex Cumming: It sounds like a lot of this is from community building and having these amazing people that I’ll trust. And understand that they can have their ideas, their thoughts, and their voices heard, and that they have an opportunity to help mold the future.
Alexander Cartwright: They have to all help us mold the future. This institution will only move forward as we have our faculty engaged. And as we have our students and our staff all helping us with, what does that future look like? We can have visions and we can think about goals and everything, but we really need people who are going to be pushing us along and saying, hey, we can do it this way.
And the more you can empower that, the better, the faster the institution will move. The faster we’ll make decisions. The faster we’ll make progress. And we just need to continue to encourage and empower people to help us with that.
Alex Cumming: Yeah. Working in higher education for the time that you’ve been working in it, what would you say keeps you inspired to work? Is it the people, the staff, the changes that you can see that you’re making in people’s lives, the community that you build?
Alexander Cartwright: Yes. So it’s all about, and it’s little things by the way. It’s seeing people walk across the stage when they graduate. It’s talking to a parent who recognizes how much this institution has meant for their child’s life. It’s seeing our faculty just do exceptional things, because you feel, even though you haven’t done it, you at least can feel like you were a part of creating the environment where they could be successful.
And each little part, each time you see that type of success, you feel a little bit, Oh, I was there, I was part of that. It’s very much like a team, a feeling and that successful people rely on that type of environment — a team environment — where they are helped by all the other people around them.
And I think that’s what’s fascinating about higher ed is every day. We know we can make a difference. And I always think about the fact that there were a lot of people who helped me throughout my career. And I know that they probably never realized how much they helped me. Because they thought nothing of it.
It was just what they did and it’s little things, right? Like encouraging you, maybe you should consider graduate school. well, I’m sure that faculty member probably never thought that was that impactful, but it was to me. Because I’d never had anybody actually say that before. And it’s people like that. And I think every day that we talk to people, we have an opportunity to change someone’s life. We just need to always remember how powerful it is to be in higher education and how much we can help. And the more we can do that, I think every day, you feel like how much better of a job could you have? To me, there’s nothing better.
Alex Cumming: You never realized how far the roots of who taught your mentors, and then when did they learn, then the wisdom that they impart on you. Sometimes it’s tough to realize just. One passing comment…
Alexander Cartwright: one passing comment.
Alex Cumming: One day, you find someone on the right day. You give them the right word of affirmation.
Alexander Cartwright: Yes.
Alex Cumming: One day changes their life forever. And that’s the power of education. That’s the power of, you know, positive leadership, positive mentorship,
Alexander Cartwright: Positive leadership, and positive mentorship. Because I was going to say that the opposite unfortunately is also true — is that one negative comment hurts way more than people might realize.
Is that I heard — and again, our faculty who really know this area can tell me better than I can — but I think it’s something like for each sort of negative comment you make towards someone you have to then give five positives or something like that to make up for that. And that just shows how damaging. And when we say negative, it could be, you know, just critiquing something in a certain way. And you may not even realize how much that can bother someone. You have to build a trust so that then they understand that when you’re doing those things, it’s about caring. It’s about love. It’s about you helping them to become better.
And once you establish that type of relationship, there’s a lot more you can do with people. And I think there are many people in the academy that are drawn to this because they have that gift that they can give the positive affirmation in a way that they also let you know where you need to improve.
Alex Cumming: Growth.
Alexander Cartwright: Right. But they do it in a positive way. It isn’t like they’re saying everything’s wonderful and you don’t have anything you can improve on. No, that’s not what they’re saying. They will tell you, Yeah, this is really good. But what if you did this? What if you tried something different here?
That’s what I find fascinating. Is when you can get those people who have that ability, it just creates an environment that people can really excel.
Alex Cumming: this environment of constructive feedback. Growth oriented Discussion. Of how can we, this is good. How could it be better? How can, how can it be better?
Alexander Cartwright: And when we look at an institution like UCF, I see so many wonderful things. But I also look at it and I’m always thinking but we can be even better. And we can be better because of the people we have. And because of the potential I see in them, and the potential I see in just being here — that’s why we can do all those things.
If you didn’t feel that positive part of what’s possible and all the things that we could be doing, then you’re not really — it’s hard for you to then get invested in say, well, let’s do this, let’s do that. But it’s because you see the potential that you’re willing to say, let’s try this. Let’s become, let’s try to be better at this. Let’s be try to be better that it’s always coming from that point that I feel so good about what we’re doing that now is the time to say we can do more.
Alex Cumming: Definitely. You want to avoid being stagnant and letting the moss start to grow. You want to keep moving, growing, changing. President Cartwright to yourself, what makes a good leader and in yourself, how do you try to uphold those values?
Alexander Cartwright: Leadership is difficult. And I think it’s hard to say what makes a good leader personally, for me, it’s, about first caring about people, making sure they understand that you do care. That you actually have to think about what’s in the best interest of the university at times, and that you have to empower people around you to make decisions.
I tell stories all the time, you know, cause I’m a faculty member — I do like my red ink and I like to correct things, you can sometimes overdo that. You can become as a leader, you can start getting into every detail. And then you slow every process down.
And your job as a leader is to allow people to do their jobs and to encourage and to talk about what’s working, what’s not. That’s to me, how you really effect change in an institution, is by being supportive and helping people to do their job and be the best they can be. Some people believe differently than that, that maybe you need to be involved in every little thing.
I just don’t. I think that’s not the way you bring out the best in people, because once they start thinking, you’re going to second guess every decision or try to make the decisions for them, then why should they make the decision in the first place? So you have to get past that and start recognizing your role as a leader.
It’s the servant leader mentality of our job is to think about what people can be and how they can move forward. I want people to understand that it is possible for you to care deeply about the people around you to lead with love, compassion And that doesn’t mean you’re not holding people accountable. It just means you’re doing it differently. And that it’s okay for you to like people and for you to listen to people and for you to learn from people. There’s nothing wrong with that as a leader; that doesn’t show any weakness. I talk a lot about confidence and confident leaders recognize that there are people around them that know more than them.
And that they can learn from. And you’re never uncomfortable because you feel okay about your own yourself, your ability to do your job. So you’ll learn from other people. And I think that’s a key tenet too, is just understanding that there’s so many talented people around you. And the best thing you can do is surround yourself with people who are better than you. Who know more than you. It makes life so much easier because you have great people who you can then rely on and you can let them do the exceptional things that they’re going to do. So I think it’s recognizing that and encouraging people that requires belief in people.
It requires you to care about people and requires you to step back and understand that different people have different roles.
Alex Cumming: You’re so correct. It can be tough to look outside of yourself and say that, you know, I mean, at UCF you have the best of the best in the world. And you say, okay, I know this, but who knows this? And then some yeah. Who knows a little bit more about that? What advice would you give somebody who wanted to be the president of a university?
Alexander Cartwright: You probably think, you know, a lot of people will go back to, well, you know, you need to be a leader in your field. all of those things, but I think it’s more than that. Yes, I think you have to, be passionate about what you’re doing. You have to care about it.
But I think it’s also that you have to take some time and try to understand people, and that’s complex. And when you think about someone who is an engineer, we tend to try to simplify everything and try to get it that you could write a simple equation to describe it. You can’t do that with people. It’s too complex, and you have to start understanding that every person who works with you may have different lived experiences, may have worked under different types of leaders. And how do you get them to understand who you are as a leader? I would say that’s still difficult. That people still after a year of being here, I think there’s probably still people that say they don’t completely know, how I am, who I am as a leader. And that makes it difficult.
So, the more that you can start to appreciate people’s backgrounds, start to understand who they are, how they make decisions, why they’re here. what are their goals? Is it okay for me to hear from a staff member that, you know, maybe, they do want to be president? And my answer is, yeah, I want to hear that. If this what they want to do, that’s okay. And my job then is to position them so that they could become a president. Maybe not take my job directly immediately, but at somewhere else they could become a president.
I think that’s what you have to do. You have to have that mindset. Because then you have an environment where we’re all trying to help each other. And by the way, If someone does have that goal, the only way they’re going to get there is doing exceptional work here at UCF. And that’s good for UCF. So we allow them to be exceptional because then yeah, they might go on but the wonderful thing about that whole culture is, as you bring people in and they start to realize that you’re an institution that is committed to developing leaders, that then will cascade. Others will want to be part of that environment. And inherently, when you start doing this, you start developing leaders internally also, and that helps the institution.
So the more we can do about this and understand that leadership is all about people, leadership is all about how you can motivate, it’s all about having a vision for where we’re headed and trying to get people to recognize the things that we can do and having them you know believe that these things are possible, I think that actually then will allow us to continue to, move forward.
There’s a lot of other things, people could talk about leadership and I’ve read a lot of different leadership books. But I think ultimately it just boils down to relationships with people.
Alex Cumming: Relationships, understanding people everyone’s different…
Alexander Cartwright: Everybody’s different.
Alex Cumming: You can’t just box people into ideas. They have feelings, personalities come from different places, different backgrounds…
Alexander Cartwright: and sometimes they’ll come up with ideas that you would never have thought of. And you have to be willing to think outside of what you’re used to and be open to those ideas.
And if you are able to recognize good ideas, that’s a big skill. And if you’re able to say that’s a good idea. I think that’s the biggest thing that I would recommend to people is learn how to listen and learn how to recognize good ideas, because you don’t know where they’re going to come from.
But as a leader, you should recognize that it’s a good idea, and it doesn’t need to come from you. It can come from anybody. And when you hear it, you go, that’s a good idea. Let’s do that. And that’s, I think it just helps us hold them before much quicker.
Alex Cumming: Yeah. You’re so right. What’s one thing that you’re still hoping to do?
Alexander Cartwright: I’ve already said, you know, that for UCF, my goal is quite simple and that is, I think we have the potential to be the best metropolitan research university in this country. And I look at that and I know that’s ambitious beause let me tell you, there’s a lot of great metropolitan research universities out there.
When I say that, I mean, we’re going to do it the UCF way. We’re going to focus on what we value. We’re going to focus on our people, our students, our faculty, and we’re going to continue to move this institution forward and the research that it does and the scholarship that it does, the impact that it has on lives.
We are going to be an institution that is exceptional in scholarship, but at the same time, we are going to be fully committed to providing the environment and opportunity our students need to excel. Every student that comes here deserves that. Whatever background, it doesn’t matter. They deserve to have an opportunity to excel.
We’ll be committed to that, and if we commit to those things, I look at it and I’m like, you know, if someone can come from the Bahamas and certainly make it to where I’ve made it to, I look at the potential we have here at UCF, and I don’t see any reason why we couldn’t move to that position where we are already a place in this country that people are looking at.
They know how much we’ve moved, they know how much we’ve done in a short period of time. And I can tell you that a lot of people are looking and going what’s next for that place? And we have so much potential. It’s now our job to just keep jumping to that next level. And we will. I feel it. I know that we have the talent and the desire.
We have such an innovative spirit here. People, I’ve said this before, about with COVID and other things, people just roll up the sleeves. Let’s get the job done. That is a huge advantage. There are not many institutions that have that attitude. We embrace that. We embrace what is possible, and we can really become the best metropolitan university in this country.
That actually would be very satisfying to me because it means it would be accomplishing a lot of the things that we want to do. It may not happen immediately and it may take a long time for us to get there. But if I can definitely see that we’re on that path, I’ll feel very good about where we’re headed.
You know, personally, I’ve got lots of other goals. I still would like to learn how to play an instrument, learn another language. I don’t know if I’ll ever get to do those things, but, but I certainly would love to. I still have so many things I want to learn.
I’d love to know more about so many different subjects. And eventually I hope I can get to the point where I, can spend that time and do that. But for now I’m very, very happy with learning more about leadership, learning more about people, learning more about how we partner with the community and what we can do within this region and how we leverage our alumni.
And how do we get to know more of them and know more of our regional partners within Orlando, and in the greater Central Florida region. Those are all things that are like immediate goals. I got to build on all of those and do those things. Once we do those, then we can start moving on all of the other bigger goals.
And I’m a big believer that it happens one small step at a time. That if I can do something better today than I did it yesterday, if I commit to that every day, you don’t even see how much change you’re making. But after a year, five years, 10 years, you’re in a completely different place.
Alex Cumming: Building brick by brick. It’s a beautiful place. It’s a university full of go-getters that are ready to build the future. This is the launchpad of the future.
Alexander Cartwright: Yes. And as a leader, my job is to pretty much stay out of the way and allow them to do it and create an environment where they can. You don’t want to be an impediment.
You don’t want to slow things down. You want to keep things moving and you want to encourage people to take the chances and to do things that they may not have thought were possible. But we’re going to try to support that type of entrepreneurial spirit where clearly anything is possible at this institution.
Alex Cumming: Oh yeah, no doubt.. Well, President Cartwright, it has been such an honor and a pleasure to get to speak with you today.
Alexander Cartwright: Thank you. It was good to talk to you.
Alex Cumming: I had such a joy of having you on the show. So thank you once again.
Alexander Cartwright: Thank you.
Alex Cumming: So, thanks again for listening. Be sure to stream and download on whatever platform you use to listen to podcasts. I look forward to you joining me on this journey where we’ll learn how Knights are making a positive impact in our community, our nation, and the world. And hey, if you’re doing something cool, whether that’s at UCF or somewhere, you took UCF that we should know about send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org. And maybe we’ll see you on an episode in the future.
This podcast was produced by the UCF marketing department with music composed by College of Arts and Humanities Professor Alex Burtzos. Go Knights! And Charge On!