Good afternoon, and thank you for joining this special gathering of our Knights family.

Among us are representatives of our Student Government Association, Faculty Senate, and Board of Trustees; members of our faculty, staff, and administration; students; members of our UCF Alumni Association and UCF Foundation boards; and friends of the university, including Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer.

Buddy, your outstanding leadership helped us to create the Florida High Tech Corridor Council and to establish the UCF College of Medicine. Now, we are proud to partner with you in pursuing an expanded presence for UCF in downtown Orlando. For all you do for UCF and for Central Florida, we thank you.

Next, please join me in acknowledging my best friend and favorite First Lady, Martha Hitt.

Last year, UCF observed a 50th birthday that underscored a remarkable success story in higher education. I am not aware of another university that has advanced so far in such a relatively short time.

Today, I can tell you that the ascent of UCF to its next level as a premier university is happening now – in this academic year.

Some of you remember when this school opened in 1968 with 1,900-or-so students in what seemed like the middle of nowhere. In the 1970’s, some of you worked or studied here for years without parking on a paved lot. And Martha and I recall when a favorite on-campus dining option was the Wild Pizza in what is now the Ferrell Commons.

This fall, UCF becomes the first university in Florida to welcome more than 60,000 students. We are known globally for excellence in optics and photonics, planetary sciences, hospitality management, video game production, education, and simulation and modeling, among other areas.

And, we are synonymous with the prosperity of the thriving Orlando city-state that we serve.

Our incomparable rise inspires questions about what the future holds for America’s second-largest university. Today, I can tell you that the ascent of UCF to its next level as a premier university is happening now – in this academic year.

Our record enrollment is but a page in a far more compelling story of progress, one that you and I are composing together.

Despite the wave of budget cuts that we absorbed starting in 2007, our university is on the move.

If we connect the dots on what is happening at UCF, a picture emerges on how Florida’s most popular university is becoming even better, even stronger, and even more impactful. Where’s the evidence? It is found in areas that include

     our efforts to enhance our presence in downtown Orlando,

     our growth in the quality of our students,

     our expanding prominence,

     our research and economic development efforts,

     our new facilities,

     and our tireless efforts to transform lives through a high-quality education.

As we survey how UCF is evolving to reach new heights of significance, I can think of no better place to start than the commitment to expand our presence in downtown Orlando.

Yesterday, at a UCF focus breakfast at Church Street Station, I announced to an enthusiastic crowd of approximately 500 community leaders that their hometown university will move forward boldly to enhance opportunities for our students and to energize downtown Orlando.

This expansion depends on securing the necessary state funding and approvals. It will require substantial engagement by our faculty, staff, and administration, along with major efforts by state lawmakers, the City of Orlando, Valencia College, and the Orange County Public School system, among others. However, the resolve to pursue our progressive vision is not in question.

Working together, UCF and Valencia College seek to build a robust downtown campus of thriving programs and 21st-century facilities for 10,000 or more students.

Our pursuit of this venture is inspired by the success of Arizona State University and the City of Phoenix in creating a vibrant downtown campus. I visited this campus with Orlando Mayor Dyer and other local leaders, and we were impressed.

Eleven thousand students study on a 22-acre campus that includes colleges, a student union, administrative offices, a wellness facility shared with the YMCA, and two 13-story student residences. The ASU downtown campus offers 54 undergraduate degrees and 83 graduate degrees.

The idea for a downtown Orlando campus as part of the city’s Creative Village project has attracted $2 million from the Florida Legislature for a feasibility study.

Our team at UCF is gaining insights from ASU’s leadership aided by consultants who were instrumental in the success in Phoenix. Here’s ASU President Michael Crow with more on what a dynamic downtown campus can mean.

In deciding to proceed, I am confident that we have thoughtfully weighed the pros and cons of this undertaking. Decisions on academic programs to locate downtown are pending. Stay tuned for much more to come!

In another important development for UCF’s continuing advancement, we find the academic credentials of our incoming freshmen have never been better. Their new UCF records include an average SAT two-score of 1257, up nine points from last year; an average GPA of 3.91, which ties our all-time high; and the enrollment of 79 National Merit Scholars.

The record total for National Merit Scholars follows a year in which more of these prized freshmen students chose to attend UCF than any other Florida university. And here’s another school record from this fall: Our overall enrollment of National Merit Scholars is 275 – 28 more than last year!

What impresses me most about our students is what happens after they arrive at UCF.

UCF offers an outstanding faculty, an engaging learning environment, and a high-value education that transcends the teaching of facts, figures, and theories. Our students learn how to lead, to collaborate, to think on their feet, to pursue solutions, to give back, and to make this world a better place.

A wonderful example is how a team of UCF students, alumni, and friends gave a 6-year-old boy and his family the gift of a lifetime. Here’s a clip from ABC News on a story that captivated the nation.

A number of those young engineers and their colleagues are here. Would you please stand to be recognized.

Other triumphs are adding to the recognition of UCF as a place where extraordinary things happen.

Prior to 2013, UCF had no cyber defense team. In April, a team from UCF won the Raytheon National Collegiate Cyber Defense Competition sponsored in part by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. UCF beat squads from the Rochester Institute of Technology, the U.S. Air Force Academy, and the University of California, Berkeley.

With this national title camea big-screen display of the team’s picture in New York’s Times Square. Later, the White House hosted the team’s members, and Vice President Biden congratulated them.

Would our champions and their faculty advisor, Dr. Tom Nedorost, please stand so that we can recognize you.

By the way, cyber team members, could you devise defenses for football, basketball, and other athletics teams? Just checking!

Working together, UCF and Valencia College seek to build a robust downtown campus of thriving programs and 21st-century facilities for 10,000 or more students.

A number of our faculty members are earning special accolades. Consider the contributions of UCF optics researcher Dr. S.T. Wu. His work has significantly advanced the liquid-crystal displays that all of us use countless times a day on our computer monitors, smart phones, and TV screens. Dr. Wu has obtained 81 patents to improve the devices that the world depends upon.

This month, he was among six inductees in the inaugural class of the Florida Inventors Hall of Fame. Others honored included Thomas Edison, air conditioning pioneer John Gorrie, and Gatorade inventor Robert Cade. That’s impressive company to be in!

Dr. Wu, we can’t wait to see what you invent next! Will you please stand to be recognized.

Without a great faculty, there is no great university. And, in another indicator of progress, I am pleased that UCF is able to hire nearly 200 faculty by this time next year: 100 will be new positions and 97 will fill vacancies. It is important to note that of the 100 new hires, 90 will fill tenure-track lines.

We are able to hire these new faculty members because of $16 million received from the State of Florida. These are the first significant new dollars from the state in seven years. These same funds made possible the 5 percent raise received by university employees.

The status of UCF has been enhanced by the success of our athletic teams in the new American Athletic Conference.

Led by our Fiesta Bowl champion Knights football team, six of our squads ranked in the top 25 nationally at one point or another last season. Several UCF coaches and players earned top honors, and I am even more impressed that our student-athletes achieved a collective 3.1 GPA in their studies.

Our conference arrangement with ESPN sports has provided unprecedented national TV exposure for UCF. Online sales of UCF merchandise are at record highs, which boosts the visibility of our university.

Also advancing UCF is the new national University Innovation Alliance, a national coalition that is making an unprecedented effort to help low-income and first generation students attain an affordable college degree.

We are founding members of this partnership that includes the three largest universities in the nation – Arizona State, UCF, and Ohio State – along with eight other public research universities of influence: California-Riverside, Georgia State, Iowa State, Kansas, Michigan State, Oregon State, Purdue, and Texas-Austin.

To launch this endeavor, the Alliance has received $5.7 million from the Ford, Gates, Kresge, Lumina, Markle, and USA Funds foundations.

This partnership puts us among elite company in higher education, and it fits perfectly with UCF’s goals to enhance student access and graduation rates.

Another bold collaboration underscores UCF’s relevance to the prosperity of Florida.

The picture on the screens is Florida at night. Notice the lights. Where there are more lights, there are more communities and more people. Where there are more people, there are more businesses, more jobs, and more economic opportunities.

In many respects, the guiding lights for our state’s economy are in the metropolitan areas of Miami, Tampa-St. Petersburg, and Orlando – areas that are home to the respective universities of Florida International, South Florida, and UCF. Together, we serve 63 percent of Florida’s population, 70 percent of the state’s ethnic and racial minorities, and 47 percent of all students in the State University System of Florida.

Together, we also award nearly half the baccalaureate degrees produced in the State University System of Florida.

Our three universities have formed the Florida Consortium of Metropolitan Research Universities to leverage our resources for greater impact in the state’s largest urban centers. And Florida’s leaders are seeing the merit in our approach.

Also advancing UCF is the new national University Innovation Alliance, a national coalition that is making an unprecedented effort to help low-income and first generation students attain an affordable college degree.

This year, the Florida Board of Governors awarded our Consortium $8.5 million to help fill gaps in Florida’s workforce in the fields of accounting and information technology. And more Consortium initiatives are coming to channel talented graduates to where employers in our state need them most.

In another measure of UCF’s advancement, last year our researchers secured a school-record $145.6 million in funding. Our faculty members engage in research geared to making our lives better by detecting cancer sooner, helping our computers to run faster and smoother, making air travel safer, and identifying potential sink holes more accurately.

One new research project is especially notable. In Osceola County, UCF is pursuing a smart sensors research and manufacturing center that aims to energize Florida’s innovation economy with thousands of new jobs in coming years.

UCF has joined with the Osceola County Commission, the Florida High Tech Corridor Council, the Orlando Economic Development Commission, and the state of Florida to build this center and to cultivate an industry consortium to manage the manufacturing operation.

With the growing worldwide proliferation of smart phones, tablets, and other electronic devices, the demand for smart sensors is booming. Analysts predict this industry could top a trillion dollars in the near future. Our proposed center is a bold play for becoming a world leader in producing these sophisticated devices.

Osceola commissioners have committed 20 acres and $61 million in cash toward this project. UCF is providing $9 million along with $7 million for focused faculty hires, and the state of Florida is contributing $2 million.

All the partners are working hard to hasten construction by March with the goal of an early 2017 opening.

The advance of UCF is furthered also by plans of other new facilities to better serve our students and the community.

At Lake Nona, UCF has teamed with the United States Tennis Association to help build the new home for American tennis. This complex of more than 100 tennis courts is to open in 2016, and it will provide UCF’s tennis teams with some of the finest facilities in the nation. That’s a tough racket to bear … but we’ll try! This venture also will allow UCF to develop special academic degree programs for students and for tennis professionals.

Also at Lake Nona this spring, the UCF College of Medicine will open its second Pegasus Health Clinic. This clinic at the entrance to the Medical City will provide primary and specialty care under one roof with a focus on inflammatory diseases.

Back here on campus, we will break ground in December along Memory Mall on a three-story, 50,000-square-foot building dedicated to the success of international students in a new program called Global UCF.

In a partnership with Shorelight Education, UCF seeks to recruit hundreds of high-achieving students from abroad. Global UCF students pay out-of-state tuition and will in no way displace our native students. Rather, they will enhance the cultural exchange opportunities on campus while generating additional revenue in this era of reduced state support.

On another important project, construction should begin early next year on the Wayne Densch Center for Student-Athlete Leadership beside Bright House Networks Stadium.Thanks to the generosity of the Wayne Densch Charitable Trust, this center will put UCF at the forefront nationally in preparing student-athletes to become leaders who can make a difference in the world.

We are also preparing for a new Trevor Colbourn Hall. It will replace the existing Colbourn Hall with more offices for faculty members and support services, along with additional classrooms. Construction may begin on this five-to-six story structure a year from now, with an opening in mid-2017.

Meanwhile, we are exploring the addition to our campus of an upscale conference-center hotel. The proposed site is along Alafaya Trail near the main entrance to campus on University Boulevard. If this hotel is built, it would provide an attractive campus venue for hosting meetings, job candidates, family members of our students, and other friends of the university.

The hotel would be built, owned, and operated by a private developer.

The heart of our mission at UCF – and what we do best – is to transform lives through the power of higher education. Last year, UCF awarded more than 15,500 degrees, a new school-record total that led all universities in Florida.

This is important because a college degree has been, and continues to be, the single most important factor for a successful career – and a better future. Let me tell you about the Esperanza Perez family.

Esperanza is a senior finance and accounting major with a 4.0 GPA. However, for years, college seemed beyond her reach.

At age 17, she was a single mother. By age 26, she had two children, a full-time job, and a loving husband who became disabled from a motorcycle accident. Bills piled up, and the family lost its home. Amid the chaos and financial stress, Esperanza and her husband, Hector, decided to pursue college degrees.

Esperanza attended Valencia College part-time while managing apartments and working 60 hours a week. She earned perfect grades and obtained scholarships. She enrolled in UCF through the Direct Connect program, and more scholarships followed.

A member of UCF’s Burnett Honors College, Esperanza serves as president of the National Association of Black Accountants, and last summer she was impressive as an intern with KPMG, one of the nation’s top accounting firms. This spring, both she and Hector will earn bachelor degrees from UCF. The family’s future is bright.

Esperanza and Hector, will you please stand. Congratulations!

For the Perez family and so many others, UCF stands for opportunity – to grow, to work, to excel, to start over, and to pursue a brighter future.

Providing that opportunity requires constant focus, effort, and support. We need more scholarships for first generation and other deserving students, which is partly why our current fundraising campaign at UCF is so essential.

Our campaign started quietly. But it’s approaching full stride and now has a name, which is “Ignite: The Campaign for UCF.”In addition to providing more endowed scholarships, this effort seeks to raise several hundred million dollars to hire more top-notch faculty and research scholars to advance our world-class research and commercialization agenda; expand programs outside of the classroom, such as one-on-one advising, study abroad options, and student leadership development; and refurbish and build facilities to better educate the high-caliber workforce that Central Florida demands.

Although we welcome our first new legislative budget dollars in years, our state funding is less than it was in 2007. And, the needs and numbers of our students have never been greater.

The Ignite campaign is vital to UCF’s future progress. If you desire to help even a single student to succeed, there is a place for you to join me in this campaign to make a difference.

I could not speak to you today without addressing how UCF is also striving to promote an ever-safer campus community.

As we have seen in recent news reports, sexual assault and domestic violence are criminal acts that affect people in all walks of life.

Due to our forward-thinking programs, UCF was one of a handful of institutions invited to the White House earlier this year to discuss violence on college campuses.

The Ignite campaign is vital to UCF’s future progress. If you desire to help even a single student to succeed, there is a place for you to join me in this campaign to make a difference.

Among our many efforts to discourage violence and to promote safety is our new “Shield” website that is a comprehensive source for information about identifying, preventing, and responding to these types of violent crimes. We also are strongly supporting the White House’s new “It’s On Us” campaign that seeks to change attitudes about sexual assaults.

On this subject, let me be direct and clear: UCF does not tolerate sexual violence or misconduct in any form. We will listen to and care for survivors. We will respond swiftly to help survivors overcome barriers and shield them from additional sexual misconduct. And we will leave no Knight behind.

Much has changed at UCF since Martha and I arrived in 1992. But the five key goals that I established then 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.

Many of the initiatives that I’ve noted – the expansion of UCF downtown, the University Innovation Alliance, the Florida Consortium of Metropolitan Research Universities, the Osceola smart sensors research and manufacturing center, and others – result from the collaborative approach that serves us so well.

More than ever before, UCF stands for opportunity.

Much to the credit of so many of you, UCF is becoming a trendsetter for the future of higher education in this country. We are key participants in a national conversation on how to provide accessible, affordable, and high-quality education. We exemplify how a university transforms lives, energizes the economy, and improves the quality of life for its community. We lead the way in showing how to achieve remarkable results through the power of partnerships.

And, we are just getting warmed up!

Our university has weathered seven years of budget cuts, but we are not dis-spirited. Rather, as the numerous advances that I have just discussed with you indicate, we are renewed, strong, and confident.

UCF is aggressively moving forward, and we will continue to be bold and innovative.

My friends, the state of your university is excellent.

In the spirit of UCF’s founding president, the late Charlie Millican, let’s keep reaching for the stars. Go Knights, and … CHARGE ON!