The University of Central Florida was known as Florida Technological University when Trevor Colbourn became president in 1978. Recognizing the university had grown beyond its early moniker as “Florida’s space university,” Colbourn renamed the institution that same year.
In addition to that high-profile name change, Colbourn also established UCF’s honors program and a football program that has earned national rankings; nurtured a fledgling research park; and developed a partnership with Orange County that has created thousands of high tech jobs and helped transform the region’s economy.
Colbourn, UCF’s second president, died Tuesday in Winter Park. He was 87.
“Trevor blazed trails for UCF, from giving us our name to the leap of faith that led to a nationally prominent football program,” said UCF President John C. Hitt. “He was an astute academic leader with a keen vision. As president, I greatly valued his advice and contributions to our university.”
“We hear of presidents building coalitions of support—people, countries and materials—all designed to come together to achieve some great purpose,” said Colbourn’s friend and former UCF Alumni Association President Ron Page. “Of the many accomplishments of Trevor Colbourn, I’m fond of focusing on the masterful way he marshaled support for the renaming and rebranding of the university. He created a comprehensive plan, garnered support from all the appropriate constituencies and realized a victory. All those who love this university are beneficiaries of his craftsmanship, in this instance and many others.”
Colbourn retired as president in 1989 and remained active as a history teacher, the university’s historian and a president emeritus who raised funds and goodwill for UCF. In 2001, UCF’s Humanities and Fine Arts Building was renamed Colbourn Hall in his honor.
The Scholar President
Colbourn, who was born Feb. 24, 1927, in Armidale, New South Wales, Australia, became president of Florida Technological University in 1978, after founding president Charles Millican retired.
During Colbourn’s tenure, UCF created an honors program that later would become the Burnett Honors College. The college’s enrollment has grown to more than 1,700, and its freshmen classes continue to post record SAT and GPA scores year after year.
During his presidency, Colbourn oversaw enrollment growth from 11,000 to 18,000 students and an increase in research funding from $3.8 million to $16.4 million annually. The UCF Foundation’s assets increased from almost $800,000 to more than $11 million.
“Change is what higher education is all about,” Colbourn once said. “This institution has a distinguished past and will have a much more distinguished future. It’s been a lot of fun, some anguish and certainly no regrets.”
Known as the “Scholar President,” Colbourn held degrees from the University of London, the College of William and Mary, and Johns Hopkins University, where he earned his doctorate in American History in 1953.
Prior to his UCF presidency, Colbourn taught history at Penn State University and Indiana University Bloomington before moving into adminstration. He also served as the graduate dean at the University of New Hampshire and academic vice president and eventually acting president at San Diego State University.
An expert on the American Revolution and Thomas Jefferson, Colbourn penned a number of books and articles, including “The Lamp of Experience,” “Fame and the Founding Father” and “The Americans: A Brief History.”
‘Crazy to Start Football’
Colbourn established UCF’s football program in 1979. Led by a volunteer coach, the team won its inaugural game, defeating host St. Leo College 21-0 in a rain-soaked cow pasture.
“A lot of people thought I was crazy to start football,” Colbourn said in 1998, three years after UCF’s football program advanced to Division 1-A. “(But) it was the key to open the door for visibility.” In 2008, he was inducted into the UCF Athletics Hall of Fame.
Twenty-eight years later in 2007, the UCF Knights played their first game on campus in Bright House Networks Stadium. Since then, more than 1 million fans have watched the Knights play on campus since the stadium’s opening.
The 2010 season saw UCF football reach new level of success, earning the team’s first bowl victory, winning its second Conference USA title and ending the season ranked in the top 20. The program has continued to grow, joining the American Athletic Conference, winning the Fiesta Bowl and earning a Top 10 national ranking in 2013.
Leading UCF Innovations
Colbourn’s tenure as president saw UCF introduce the state’s first stand-alone doctoral program in computer science, followed by Ph.D. offerings in civil, computer, electrical, mechanical, industrial and environmental engineering; business administration; and human factors psychology. UCF also expanded master’s and bachelor’s programs, dedicated new buildings at the Daytona Beach and Cocoa campuses and established Greek Park on the main campus.
The Central Florida Research Park, adjacent to UCF’s East Orlando campus, today employs about 10,000 in a variety of high-tech industries. The park is home to one of the nation’s largest concentrations of federal defense technology agencies and UCF’s Institute for Simulation and Training, also founded during Colburn’s presidency.
UCF became one of the first schools in the nation to begin using a telephone system for course registrations. Colbourn’s efforts laid the groundwork for UCF becoming one of America’s “most wired” universities with extensive Internet technology and services provided for faculty, students and staff.
Although known for the high-profile name change, football program and research park, Colbourn shouldered a long effort to establish equitable funding for the state’s newer universities to put them on the same financial footing as more established institutions.
“He championed that cause, often standing alone before legislative leaders and the Florida Board of Regents, predecessor to today’s University System Board of Governors,” said Alan Fickett, who served as associate vice president for University Relations and UCF’s lobbyist in Tallahassee and Washington during Colbourn’s tenure.
Said James A. Donovan, executive director of the UCF Foundation in the early 1980s: “Trevor Colbourn recognized the need to augment state funding with philanthropic support from the community. He was fond of saying, ‘We can have a good university with legislative funding, but we can have a great university with philanthropic support.’”
Reaching Out to the Community
Colbourn was active in the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, the Industrial Development Commission of Mid-Florida (now known as the Metro Orlando Economic Development Commission), the Orlando Crime Prevention Association, the Board of Visitors of the Air University at Maxwell Air Force Base, the United Way, the Greater Orlando Sports Organizing Committee, the Kiwanis Club, the boards of the local opera company and public television station and the Organization of American Historians.
Philanthropic firsts under Colbourn’s leadership included UCF’s first endowed chair, the Della Phillips-Martha D. Schenck Chair in American Private Enterprise, and the first endowed chair in the southeastern U.S. in computer science.
His wife, Beryl, played a key role in reaching out to the community in her role as UCF’s first lady by creating the Town & Gown Council, a women’s organization of community and campus leaders dedicated to “friend raising” and sharing the UCF story.
A lifelong Episcopalian, Colbourn is survived by Beryl, his wife of 66 years; and daughters, Katherine “Kit” Wrye, of Fishkill, N.Y., and Elinor Colbourn, of Takoma Park, Md. Colbourn also leaves four grandchildren.