Knight Vision

Knight Vision

How John C. Hitt changed Central Florida for the better. 

By Eric Michael ’96

One of John C. Hitt’s greatest accomplishments as president of UCF began with a shot in the dark.

Gathered around a table with a host of education, civic and business leaders in 1996, Hitt presented a satellite photograph of the state of Florida at night. On the mostly black image were scattered yellow lights, arranged along a glittering strand that connected the east coast to the west. The lights were homes and businesses — and they illuminated the otherwise vacant peninsula with what Hitt recognized as potential.

“You could see the band of lights from Tampa Bay to Orlando to the Space Coast,” says Randy Berridge, then an executive with AT&T. “And [Hitt] asked, ‘You see those lights? That’s the corridor, and as it grows together, those lights are going to get brighter and brighter. Why not help the region — through our universities — make those lights even brighter by helping high-tech, high-wage companies grow here and stay here?’ ”

In the months prior to the meeting, Hitt and University of South Florida President Betty Castor helped persuade Orlando-based technology manufacturer Cirent Semiconductor to remain in Central Florida rather than accept a lucrative deal to relocate to Spain. Together, UCF and USF pledged faculty and funding to help ignite the company’s research and development, keeping thousands of jobs and economic benefits in Florida.

This unprecedented public-private partnership, along with Hitt’s vision and passion for collaboration, convinced the group to create the Florida High Tech Corridor. The Corridor’s economic development council teams UCF, USF and the University of Florida with private companies to stimulate innovative research and promote the growth of technology industries in Central Florida. Since 1996, the council has invested more than $65 million to generate a projected economic benefit of more than $1 billion.

His vision in helping create the Florida High Tech Corridor was just the beginning of Hitt’s positive impact on the region and its people. Throughout his 26-year tenure as UCF president, Hitt leveraged his insight and talent for partnerships to launch game-changing initiatives, including the UCF Health Sciences Campus and UCF Downtown.

And at the heart of all of these achievements is Hitt’s fundamental focus: people. From the individuals he’s partnered with to promote change across the region to his mission of providing a quality education to as many qualified students as possible, Hitt has built a legacy of uplifting lives.

“Every time we’ve had a major issue in our community, Dr. Hitt’s at the table contributing to the solution.”
Jacob Stuart

Powering Positive Change Through Partnerships

Since his inauguration as UCF’s fourth president in 1992, Hitt has made partnerships the cornerstone of his presidency. He prioritized building mutually beneficial relationships that solve problems and address community needs.

“When Dr. Hitt introduced the five major goals for UCF, they became goals, in many ways, for our family of communities [in Central Florida],” says Jacob Stuart, former president of the Central Florida Partnership. “That commitment to partnership is not just a commitment for the University of Central Florida, it has become a commitment for our entire region.” And it has been that commitment, plus an innate reservoir of personal attributes, that has made him a valuable ally to Central Florida leaders across industry and government.

“A good partner is somebody who comes to the table with the attitude of ‘What can I give?’ ” Stuart says. “It’s more important than ‘What can I get?’ I think you see that in so many partnerships that we’ve entered into with Dr. Hitt. … Every time we’ve had a major issue in our community, Dr. Hitt’s at the table contributing to the solution.”

It’s that combination of commitment and flexibility that has helped Hitt endear UCF to the heart of the Central Florida community.

Fueling the Technology Industry

One of Hitt’s first partnership successes, the Florida High Tech Corridor, is a prime example of translating vision into impact through collaboration. During his time as a faculty member and administrator at Texas Christian University in the 1970s and ’80s, he witnessed the cities of Dallas and Fort Worth merging economic development interests into a single, united metropolitan center. It planted a seed that the same could take place in Central Florida.

“He said, ‘That’s going to happen in the central part of Florida as Orlando begins to merge with Tampa Bay, and Orlando begins to merge with the Space Coast,’ ” Berridge says. “His vision was that these three mega areas were going to come together as one, via the corridor, and why not be part of it?”

Hitt was strategic in convincing Cirent Semiconductor to stay in Orlando. Though the company would eventually leave town, this initial success inspired more collaboration to create greater impact.

“[Hitt’s] vision was that these three mega areas were going to come together as one, via the corridor, and why not be part of it?”
Randy Berridge

“We had just saved a $1 billion expansion from going offshore, and in the process saved a $1 billion facility that was already here and protected the increase of 1,500 jobs on top of an existing 1,500 jobs,” says Berridge. “We had achieved that through the strength of a partnership between UCF, USF and AT&T. John’s vision was, ‘If these regions are going to come together, then what we just did for a company the size of AT&T [which oversaw Cirent] … why don’t we do that for companies of all sizes?’ ”

Born from university partnerships, the Florida High Tech Corridor has boosted faculty and student researchers at UCF, USF and UF. Through 22 years and 1,400 applied research projects with 360 businesses, more than 3,000 students have benefited directly from private companies with practical experience and employment opportunities, not to mention the stimulation and sustainment of Central Florida’s high-tech industry, which continues to grow.

“Central Florida would not be a leading high-tech, high-wage center of excellence in our country, and I would submit, in the world, based on the international honors that have been achieved, but for President Hitt and his vision and his focus on the mission,” Berridge says.

Hitt counts the College of Medicine as one of his proudest achievements.

Hitt counts the College of Medicine as one of his proudest achievements.

Serving the Health Care Needs of Central Florida

Orlando was once the largest metropolitan region in Florida without a medical school, and like many communities across the nation, it was facing a shortage of doctors. In 2002, Hitt saw an opportunity to remedy that deficiency, but because the funding and approval would come from state lawmakers, the effort would only be successful through partnerships.

“Dr. Hitt was brilliant in his approach,” says Deborah German, founding dean of UCF’s College of Medicine and vice president for medical affairs. “He partnered with Florida International University, which also wanted a medical school, and realized that together they could get two medical schools.”

“You always think about approaching politicians first because they’ve got the money,” says Dan Holsenbeck, UCF’s chief lobbyist to the Florida Legislature. “We were told by just about everybody, ‘We can’t afford another medical school.’ So, John [Hitt], [then-FIU President] Mitch Maidique, and later [FIU] President Mark Rosenberg, said, ‘Well, look, instead of fighting each other for one more medical school, why don’t we put our political constituencies together and both go after one?”

Through months of political maneuvering, presentations to Florida leaders and collaborative dealmaking with public and private partners, both universities gained approval to build new medical schools. Once again, Hitt saw the potential to partner with what could have been considered a rival in FIU. By cooperating and pooling efforts, a new level of success was achieved.

“[The UCF college  of medicine] is just  fundamental to all  the stuff that we have in medical city, which, from an economic standpoint, is creating a massive cluster that is also gaining worldwide recognition. That wouldn’t have happened without Dr. Hitt’s leadership.”
Jacob Stuart

German, a veteran dean of medical schools at Duke and Vanderbilt, saw the potential of UCF’s College of Medicine and its place in the burgeoning Lake Nona Medical City. “I knew that this would be the opportunity to build this century’s premier medical school, one that would anchor a medical city that would become a global destination for research, patient care and medical education.”

“I think that what the College of Medicine has done has put Orlando on the map,” says Rasesh Thakkar ’87, senior managing director of Tavistock Group, which developed Lake Nona Medical City. “This medical school and its students are beating medical schools that are a century old. That is good for the region, and I think it raises the bar throughout Central Florida and even the state of Florida.”

That momentum sparked by the College of Medicine continues in Lake Nona. UCF is building a new hospital to train medical students and creating new opportunities to lead medical research at the Burnett School of Biomedical Sciences.

“Talk about a game changer for our community,” says Stuart. “[The UCF College of Medicine] is just fundamental to all the stuff that we have in Medical City, which, from an economic standpoint, is creating a massive cluster that is also gaining worldwide recognition. That wouldn’t have happened without Dr. Hitt’s leadership.”

“I think that what the College of Medicine has done has put Orlando on the map. This medical school and its students are beating medical schools that are a century old.”
Rasesh Thakkar ’87

The Dr. Phillips Academic Commons will anchor the UCF Downtown campus with active learning classrooms, collaborative spaces and a library.

The Dr. Phillips Academic Commons will anchor the UCF Downtown campus with active learning classrooms, collaborative spaces and a library.

Bringing the Impact of UCF to Downtown Orlando

Hitt identified another opportunity to infuse the transformative energy of UCF into Orlando with a new downtown campus. Inspired by the success Arizona State University achieved starting its own urban campus in downtown Phoenix, Hitt proposed the idea to Central Florida partners, including the city of Orlando, Valencia College and Orange County Public Schools. The benefits were obvious.

“An urban campus is about being embedded in the community,” says ASU President Michael Crow. “Hitt didn’t take the model of a regional university found someplace else in the country and just say, ‘We’re going to build this campus. This is going to be a smaller version of the big public university built decades or a century earlier.’ He said, ‘No, we’re going to build a unique, embedded university in the urban fabric.’ ”

Downtown Knights will live and learn in innovative, mixed-use student housing that offers university services and classrooms, as well as restaurants and retail.

Downtown Knights will live and learn in innovative, mixed-use student housing that offers university services and classrooms, as well as restaurants and retail.

An initial proposal to the Florida Board of Governors proved too ambitious and costly, so Hitt and his partners regrouped, scaled down and eventually won approval for an academic building to anchor what will become a larger joint campus for UCF and Valencia College. The new urban campus will house programs that relate to downtown industries, including social services, education, digital media and public administration. This will increase opportunities for collaboration between private companies, public agencies, and UCF faculty and students, who will benefit from service- learning, internships and increased employment opportunities.

“I think the downtown campus is a brilliant idea, and it has a lot of potential in several directions,” says Sandy Shugart, president of Valencia College. “At one level, it’s going to play a massive role in continuing the reawakening of urban life in Orlando. … But I think it’s important, too, that the program there is relevant to the community. … There are many people near the urban core whose lives are only going to be improved if their talents are developed and they’re given real opportunities to join the mainstream, both economically and educationally. We are fervently hopeful that the presence of the college and the university there together will make that difference for them.”

“Bringing 7,700 students in the disciplines that can benefit from being located in downtown is very strategic. It will be beneficial both to the students and the university but also greatly beneficial to downtown.”
Buddy Dyer

“Bringing 7,700 students in the disciplines that can benefit from being located in downtown is very strategic. It will be beneficial both to the students and the university but also greatly beneficial to downtown to have the energy and excitement and talent,” says Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer.

Ensuring Students Are the Key

Hitt’s success at creating partnerships has brought transformational growth, prosperity and esteem to UCF. As the influential leader steps down from the presidency, it is easy to credit these accomplishments as his legacy. But the driver for all of these projects has been the students of UCF. Providing the opportunity for people to pursue a degree in higher education is the core of Hitt’s mission, and it has influenced everything he’s done.

“The whole notion that UCF wants to provide opportunities for everyone who’s interested in a college education is a very different mindset than some universities,” says Barbara Jenkins ’83 ’86MEd ’96EdD, superintendent of OCPS. “I think it’s given Central Florida the promise of a brighter future.”

“Hitt’s goal of making sure that everyone has access and to increase participation by those who wouldn’t normally have the economic means [to pursue a degree] has done so much to create an environment of equality in our community,” Orange County Mayor Teresa Jacobs says.

During his 26 years in office, Hitt has more than tripled enrollment and awarded more than 270,000 degrees — 83 percent of the total since the university’s founding. And he has doubled the number of minority students, who currently make up 46 percent of the student population.

“Dr. Hitt’s true impact has yet to be realized,” says Jenkins. “It’s a ripple effect, like a stone dropped into a pond. I think it’s immeasurable, honestly.”

Building civic and corporate partnerships has been key to Hitt’s mission of increasing student access to education.

Building civic and corporate partnerships has been key to Hitt’s mission of increasing student access to education.