5 Questions with Thad Seymour Jr.
By Laura J. Cole
Leading one of the largest universities in the nation isn’t what most people have in mind for retirement. But then, Interim President Thad Seymour Jr. isn’t most people.
Prior to being confirmed for the interim position in March, Seymour helped lead the development of UCF’s strategic plan, spearheaded efforts to make UCF Downtown a reality, and was named vice president for partnerships and chief innovation officer.
All this was after retiring from a 30-year business career, including his position as senior vice president of Tavistock Development Company, where he helped bring in more than $3 billion in investment for Lake Nona Medical City.
“[Former President Dale Whittaker] reeled me in nearly four years ago, and it’s been this wonderful progression toward complete, abject failure at retirement ever since,” Seymour says.
And while taking on increasing responsibilities over the past few years may seem antithetical to slowing down, finding himself in higher education administration is not actually all that far off from where he imagined he’d wind up — just perhaps a little more circuitous.
Seymour grew up on college campuses, where his father was an English professor and a dean at Dartmouth College, then president of Wabash and Rollins colleges, in Crawfordsville, Indiana, and Winter Park, Florida, respectively.
“Growing up, it felt like a logical path to be in education,” Seymour says.
“I’ve been fortunate to largely work in organizations where you can make a difference, where you can see the connection between the hard work you do every day and its positive impact on the world. Certainly, that’s the case with the work we do at UCF.”
— UCF Interim President Thad Seymour Jr.
At first, that meant teaching and coaching high school students at a small New Hampshire boarding school, after earning a history degree from Dartmouth.
“That was great fun and convinced me that I wanted to continue my studies,” he says.
From there, he went on to the University of Wisconsin, where he earned master’s and doctoral degrees in history.
“I never saw myself becoming the top American historian,” he continues. “I enjoyed research, but I liked teaching more.”
While Seymour was finishing his dissertation on Theodore Roosevelt, his wife, Katie, decided to go to business school to study her passion, nonprofit management.
“Katie has always inspired me, and I was impressed by the work she was doing and thought, ‘Maybe that’s what I really want to do,’ ” Seymour says. “The funny thing is she recently found my application essay for [the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University], where I wrote that someday I saw myself in college administration. I’d completely forgotten about that.”
How he arrived in his current position may seem like happenstance, but make no mistake. His degrees and time spent acquiring knowledge informed who he became. And with his background in education, his inside knowledge of business in central Florida, and his previous involvement in everything from Valencia College and Visit Orlando to StarterStudio and Shepherd’s Hope, Seymour is perfectly positioned to lead UCF at this point in its history.
Pegasus sat down with Seymour to learn more about what drives him as well as why he thinks UCF will only continue getting better.
What are you currently reading?
A lot of what I love to read is history. One of my favorite authors is Doris Kearns Goodwin, whose most famous book is Team of Rivals, which is about Abraham Lincoln and how he assembled a cabinet made up of his political opponents to ensure he had multiple points of view. She just wrote a book called Leadership in Turbulent Times, which profiles Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson and looks at common threads in their upbringing, and the personal and professional obstacles they ran into that forged their leadership style. Ultimately, each of them was most impactful because they fell back on core values that really mattered to them. It’s a great read.
What motivates you?
I think Katie and I are both motivated by family and service. We are privileged to come from close-knit families with parents who instilled in us key values, such as the importance of family and living lives of service. Katie is the eldest of seven, and there were five kids in my family. And we raised three children of whom we are very proud because they are kind, caring people.
Professionally, I’ve been fortunate to largely work in organizations where you can make a difference, where you can see the connection between the hard work you do every day and its positive impact on the world. Certainly, that’s the case with the work we do at UCF.
You currently have an exchange student living with you. Can you tell me about him and how you became a host family?
For more than 18 years, our family has been involved with our sister Catholic diocese of San Juan de la Maguana in the Dominican Republic. Our friends there live in remote mountain villages, and the communities still have limited resources, though things are improving. Katie’s first trip was to assist on a surgical mission; and later, my sons, Katie and I helped with home-building efforts. Then Katie and our daughter began teaching English to youth in the summers.
As the program has matured, five schools have been started. Several of those schools’ top-performing students were invited to study in the U.S. and were supported by different Catholic schools in central Florida. Many of the students returned back to the Dominican Republic to attend college, but some stayed here. One of Katie’s students, Bacilio, a valedictorian from Melbourne Central Catholic High School, wanted to go to college here. Katie and I invited him to live with us two years ago. He completed his honors degree at Seminole State College, which is a five-minute bike ride from our house, and was admitted to UCF. He’ll come here to study computer science as a DirectConnect to UCF student this fall.
There’s been a lot of conversation recently in the media about the cost of higher education and if it’s worth it. What do you think is the value of higher education?
In my DNA is the belief that education is the single most important thing that somebody can do to improve their opportunities, their quality of life, their livelihood and their impact on the world. If you think about higher education not as a cost but as an investment in your future, the returns are huge by every measure.
Now, that doesn’t mean that we don’t want to constantly work on the cost of education because the value is even greater if it’s more affordable. That’s why I’m utterly committed to the mission of UCF, which is to transform as many lives as possible by making a high-quality college education accessible to as many people as possible. I would add that’s also true for our state college partners.
Why are you optimistic about UCF’s future?
I’m optimistic for many reasons. There is a foundation of great people, history and momentum here. We went through a tough time, but that doesn’t define us. The core of who we are is strong and unchanged. As we continue moving forward, we need to keep our focus on three things.
One is to approach all of our work with a bias toward action. I think that’s essential to any good organization, particularly when you are committed to constant and rapid improvement, as we are.
Second is to invest in our people. The core of our mission is to develop the next generation of talent. That work depends on our greatest assets, which are our faculty and staff. So we have to pay attention to the people we have — how best to retain and develop them, so they can have the maximum impact here — and then we must continue to recruit the best people.
The third is discipline and focus. By that I mean we should say “no” more often so we can say “yes” to bigger things. Because we’re big we’re going to be able to do many things and do them well. Asking ourselves, “What do we want to be known for 20 years from now?” will lead us to focus on four or five things that we can be the best in the world at. It’s not that we will ignore everything else, but we need to find those few areas and be disciplined about making them exceptional.
For example, cybersecurity wasn’t on anybody’s radar screen in a meaningful way 10 years ago. We’ve carved out a niche where we’re highly respected globally. How do we keep building on that and do even more? If we continue to execute our strategic plan, define how we will be truly distinctive, and focus on fueling the future of the region and the state, I believe we can become one of the great 21st-century universities. I’m honored to work with a great team that’s committed to making that happen.
If we continue to execute our strategic plan, define how we will be truly distinctive, and focus on fueling the future of the region and the state, I believe we can become one of the great 21st-century universities. I’m honored to work with a great team that’s committed to making that happen.