Calling the Shots
Summer 2020 | By Laura J. Cole
UCF President Alexander N. Cartwright is used to thinking several steps ahead.
The former chancellor for the University of Missouri describes his thought process as visual, something he’s put into practice not only as a researcher and administrator but also as a champion billiards player.
“People don’t think about strategy enough,” Cartwright says. “I think about it in terms of eight ball. When I’m planning my first shot, I already know how I’m going to get to the eight ball. When you’re an administrator, you have to think that way. For every decision you make, there are at least 10 additional things that are going to happen as a result.”
That ability to think through possible outcomes has served him well as a leader. After holding administrative positions at The State University of New York and the University at Buffalo, Cartwright joined Mizzou in 2017 — two years after tense racial relations embroiled the Columbia, Missouri, campus in protests and a hunger strike that led to the resignation of both the state university system’s president and the campus’s chancellor. He is credited with repairing campus relationships, advocating for student success initiatives, and pushing for a more equitable and diverse environment.
A report compiled on the university’s recovery that was published a year after Cartwright arrived at UM found that people “expressed confidence in the leadership team.”
Part of his success came from being able to visualize what healing a fractured campus community would look like and the many small steps needed to get there.
“A lot of the big steps — the breaking down of anything we’re trying to change — are done [through] small steps,” Cartwright said during a 2018 American Council on Education (ACE) panel on navigating a campus racial crisis. “We need to make sure that we’re doing them every day. That’s how you really make change happen.”
Cartwright realized that what the community needed most to heal was someone who would listen, who would be consistent, who would ensure the impact matched the intent, and who would lead by example.
“You have to recognize this work as a moral imperative and develop a strategic road map,” said Kevin McDonald, then the vice chancellor for inclusion, diversity and equity at UM, during the 2018 ACE panel. “It has to be intentional, pervasive and consistent. Alex recognized the importance of engagement. He was consistent, and he modeled that behavior.”
Cartwright, who started at UCF on April 13 in the midst of the global pandemic, is now working on several new strategies — including how to prioritize the campus community’s health and safety, how to reopen the campus, how to strengthen our national reputation, and how to continue making Knights proud of their alma mater.
Why did you want to come to UCF?
I’ve known about UCF for many years because of CREOL [the College of Optics and Photonics]. Even before UCF became the huge institution that it is today, it was an institution in the optics community that was well respected and well known.
But the more I found out about the university, the more I realized that it was a good match to who I am and what I value. UCF was founded on the technical fields, which are obviously areas that I’m very interested in — I got my degrees in engineering. And UCF is this combination of an institution that has a tremendous number of first-generation and Pell [Grant]-eligible students — I was both of those — and includes a diverse mixture of people. It puts us in a strong position to be a role model.
UCF is also in a great location. It’s close to the Bahamas, where my family is from, and close to Tampa, where my brother lives, so that is certainly appealing.
What appeals to you about UCF’s access mission?
It’s my personal experience. I got a GED. I went to a community college. I had to figure out a way to get my bachelor’s degree.
I didn’t start my degree in engineering until I was 21. When I think about that now, I just can’t believe that I made that change from accounting. I had already worked very hard to get to the point where I was at the University of Iowa. And then to switch and start over, either I really had no clue as to what I was actually doing or I had this optimism that anything is possible. And I think it was a combination of the two.
I’m not in any way unique. The only thing that is different about me is I had access to that opportunity. I had just the right things happen at the right time, and I got lucky. I had different professors reach out to me at certain times. On one of my exams, a professor wrote, “You really should be thinking about going to graduate school.” It’s little things like that that influence who you become.
I know there are a lot of people out there like me. I know there are a lot of people who have even more capability and more talent. We need to ensure that they have that access to opportunity and that they’re able to then achieve their dreams. It benefits not only them but also society.
“For every decision you make, there are at least 10 additional things that are going to happen as a result.”UCF President Alexander N. Cartwright
Can you talk about the role higher education plays in providing access to opportunity? What role do faculty play in fostering a future that students may not otherwise consider?
I think higher education is transformative, but it’s mostly transformative if you’re able to see yourself in the shoes of someone you look up to.
For me, the professors that actually had the biggest impact were the ones who didn’t take themselves very seriously. I could see that they were having a great time. Once you see that, there’s so much possibility for you because you start recognizing that you can do that. It’s why I’m such a big believer in having research experiences and having students work with faculty. The biggest thing that comes out of that is not necessarily that students learn the material — though that’s also important. It’s that students start realizing that they can do it too, and that they can probably even do it better. That’s so important.
What do you think is the role of a university?
I’ve thought a lot about what universities could be.
Universities started off as ivory towers. The commonly held vision of a university was something private, elite, where few were admitted. Then we transitioned to public universities that were shown to have an impact on society. But still, universities were pretty elite; not everybody could get into them. Then maybe 30 years ago, people started talking a lot more about the engaged university, where universities were working with the community. But in all of those scenarios, it’s always that the university is this beacon of light that is shining knowledge on others but isn’t learning from them.
I think that the next phase is that universities will be completely integrated within our communities. When there are no boundaries and no borders — then you really can do so much more.
Many people are focusing on how bleak the future could be for higher education, but you have an optimistic outlook. Why? Where does your optimism come from?
Honestly, I think it’s just because I believe in people. I believe that we actually do want to become better, and that we’re trying to do the right things.
The great thing about working at a research university is that you are trained to look at all sorts of different challenges and to think about how you might solve them. Believing that people are always trying to do the right thing allows one to push forward. You have to feel very good about what your collaborators are trying to do.
When I became a vice president for research, one of the things that I had the opportunity to do was work with some of the best and brightest at the University at Buffalo. What I learned was that as long as someone is committed to it, things can and do become better. For example, some of the work we did with biomedical researchers included using technology to implant stents in the brains of stroke victims. That, to me, is just remarkable. When the researchers started, we weren’t sure it could work, and now it’s saving lives. Those are the things that make you optimistic.
I also look at the journey I went on, and then I look at my children. They’ve had completely different opportunities than I did. And it’s because I was given those chances. It’s because I was able to move to the U.S. that I’ve been able to get where I am.
Every day that I wake up, I think about how lucky I am, and that can’t help but give you optimism for what’s possible.
What are you most looking forward to once campus reopens?
I’m a little terrified of Spirit Splash, but I am interested in seeing that for the first time. I get it, I love all the spirit, and I understand why it’s important — every institution has a tradition. Plus, I’m fascinated by the ducks.
Tell me a little more about your children. What makes you most proud of them?
My wife and I are very lucky. We have two incredibly bright children. Of course, we’re biased, but that’s OK. Our daughter, Alyssa, went to undergraduate at MIT, and she’s now a graduate student at Stanford studying electrical engineering — which is what I studied. She thinks a lot like I do, and the way she solves problems is very similar. She loves the same math that I do — I mean, not everybody loves vector-based calculus, but we do.
Our son, Andrew, is interested in the social sciences. His degree is in industry and labor relations from Cornell. He’s thinking about going to law school. A different area, but again, it’s about the logic and mapping.
They’ve both done a really great job, but they were fortunate. They lived in a great school district, got to go to a great high school, did very well — both were National Merit finalists — and had perfect ACT scores. They’ve taken advantage of opportunities that my wife and I didn’t have.
Tell me a little bit about your wife. How did you meet?
Melinda and I met at the University of Iowa. At the time, she was a music education major, and we met in a pool hall at the student union. That’s where I spent most of my time.
From the first time I saw her, I knew she was the person I wanted to be with. We got engaged a few months after we started dating and were married a year and a half later.
She majored in music education, taught middle school band for three years and then went back to school for a computer science degree. She had a long career in IT, at the University at Buffalo and then at the University at Albany.
When I got the job at Missouri, she stopped working because the spouses in these roles have a significant job. They attend and work lots of events, and they do a lot of behind-the-scenes work. She enjoys that, and she enjoys being around people.
And who is better at pool now?
Well, I’m still pretty good…