FGCU’s third president looks back over an eventful decade

A decade may seem like a long time but it can pass quickly, as my 10 years as president of Florida Gulf Coast University certainly have.

My presidency has coincided with the university’s second decade as I was chosen to become FGCU’s third president on the institution’s 10th anniversary – Aug. 25, 2007. I marvel at all that has come to pass in the 10 years since, and as I prepare to leave, I see a university that has prospered and matured in so many ways.

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We often point to the growth in enrollment – a remarkable 60 percent increase. African American enrollment has jumped by 300 percent, and Hispanic and Native American both by 280 percent. Those are great numbers, and I’m proud of them.Dr. Bradshaw Milestones

When I arrived, we had an aggressive enrollment plan and were growing by double digits every year. Now we see more modest growth – 1 percent to 3 percent a year. As we move forward I think our roots will run deeper rather than wider and we will focus on developing recognized areas of strength.

We also have doctoral programs, which we didn’t have in 2007 – a doctorate in education, others in physical therapy and nursing practice. This fall we’ll start engineering and physician assistant master’s programs. The academic portfolio is growing more diverse and mature but it remains among the leanest in the State University System. Those things come with time. The trustees have a strategic plan that includes pillars that should provide a foundation that, with a new president, will supply the inspirational and aspirational plans for the future.

Among the most surprising aspects about my time here was the growth of the physical campus. When I got to FGCU, I could see all the way to the edge of campus from my office window in Edwards Hall. There was no Lutgert Hall, no Holmes Hall or Seidler Hall. No Marieb Hall. South Village was flat land and we had one parking garage.

We had a building going up every year and sometimes two. Even during the economic downturn we had $30 million to $50 million in construction going on. That’s because our donors and the state of Florida were providing resources to support our growth to create a critical mass of buildings. It was exhilarating. I likened it to building a jetliner while flying at 30,000 feet.
We weren’t the perfect buffer to the economic downturn but imagine what it would have been like in our region without those projects. What was going on then was not happening anywhere else in public education in the country. I felt really privileged to be a part of it. Everyone was doing all types of jobs. We did what had to be done. Our faculty and staff made it happen.

I look at the Marieb College of Health & Human Services as a great example of what we can do when our donors invest in us. We could not have developed that college with the caliber of faculty and programs we have without the generosity of exceptional donors, especially Dr. Elaine Nicpon Marieb.

Our basketball culture surprised us all. We’ve always had an outstanding athletics program and our success in the ASUN has been consistent, but what happened in ’13 was just an extraordinary surprise for everyone.

I remember when we went to the NCAA in Philadelphia. We were just excited about making the tournament. (And let’s not forget that our women made it there first.) When we arrived in Philly, we were just glad to be there. It was historic. We were playing Georgetown. Even if we’d gotten beaten it still would have been a wonderful experience. But we beat Georgetown and then we were to play San Diego State. I remember walking around with (then-assistant-coach) Marty Richter who was looking at our opponents and saying to me, “Those are some of the most perfect basketball bodies I’ve seen in one place.’ Then we beat them and we were the darlings of the nation. We came home before going to Texas to play the University of Florida and the whole region was “Dunk City” rocking and most of the state. We didn’t win but we held our own and are still the only No. 15 seed that’s gone to the Sweet 16.

That helped people see beyond our athletics and we still are experiencing an increase in the number of applicants as a result. Both the men and women made it to the tournament this year. We continue to get national exposure. That meant a lot to the university. The majority of students now come from outside of the Southwest Florida region. That’s because of the reputation we are building. People have heard of us. They know who we are.

What I’ll miss most is the beginning of the fall term when everything comes back to life; the new freshmen are coming in; other students are returning from a summer of work or play. There’s that initial boost of liveliness every fall. It recharges me.

The other thing I’ll miss is commencement. When I’m there looking at those students and looking into the audience and seeing how proud their families are, the promise they have in their eyes, that also is rejuvenating.Jo Anna and President Wilson G. Bradshaw

Sometimes you can think the job is about balancing the budget and lobbying legislators, and those things must be done, but at the end of day, seeing those students come in the fall and seeing them participate in commencement, that’s what it’s all about.

While much was accomplished during my time here, there are still things I’d have liked to do that haven’t been finished. On the academic side, I thought we’d have a research-based Ph.D. program by now – one for those who wish to pursue careers in research and teaching as opposed to professional degrees– but I think that will happen someday, most likely in the marine or ecological science fields, something to do with water.

While I don’t regret that it hasn’t happened yet, I believe football will come to FGCU someday as well. I continue to receive many inquiries but I say now what I said 10 years ago: It’s just a matter of when, not if. It’s part of the maturation process. It may be that 15,000 students are not enough to support that program. But there’s keen interest, and because of the feasibility study we did, people know what it’s going to cost. My successor will have to decide when to make it happen. And it is probably a five-year process once the decision is made to do it. Every state university has football except the University of North Florida and us.

I feel good about leaving FGCU in the hands of President-elect Mike Martin. He is very experienced, very accomplished. There is nothing that is foreign to him. He will increase the momentum. He was a very good choice.

I’ll be joining my wife, Jo Anna, in St. Augustine after my last day June 30. My contract calls for a year’s sabbatical then it will have me teach three courses a year. I’m working with the deans and Board chair to see what those might be. They might be online courses. I’ve identified some professors who do well online so I can learn how to gear up for that.

In my spare time, I’d like to improve my fishing. Unlike my wife, I haven’t yet caught a fish I can mount. I’d like to improve my boating skills and take my culinary skills more seriously. I can grill and bake. I’d like to fill in in between.

We also plan to travel and be more spontaneous about it.

This has been quite a great experience from day one. The community has welcomed us. We were humbled and privileged to have been a part of it for 10 years. I’m a native Floridian, educated in the state university system and to be able to come back and lead what I think is one of the gems of that system is very special. To work with some tremendously talented people and accomplish what we’ve accomplished has been very special.

Jo Anna’s involvement with the Harry Chapin Food Bank and the Campus Food Pantry was terrific. We are both realizing how special it was to be part of all of this and are looking forward to a very active retirement.

Of all that has happened here, I’m most proud of our graduates and their promise. The average age of our alumni is about 32. I think there will be so much more to be proud of them for as they start making their marks on the world. I’m proud to have been a part of that. It’s been tremendous getting to know many of the students, seeing them mature and go out into world. Jo Anna and I hear from our own scholarship recipients and are glad we were able to invest in their success.

When I’m asked about my FGCU legacy, I say my legacy will be written in the future.  I’ll let those who graduated during my tenure write my legacy.