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Business Leaders of the Year 2016 – John Hitt



University of Central Florida

john-hittIn accepting one of his many awards and recognitions, John Hitt said with his characteristic smile, “Jack Benny in a similar situation once said, ‘I really don’t deserve this, but I have arthritis and I didn’t deserve that either.’” By the unanimous consent of business, academia, politicians and community leaders across the region, when it comes to acknowledging the contribution the President of the University of Central Florida has had on shaping what this area is and is becoming, no one is more deserving of recognition.

As Rick Walsh, a 1977 alumnus and charter member of the UCF Board of Trustees observed, “It is actually quite difficult to imagine what UCF, our community and the region would look like had John not been here.” Or Tico Perez, member of the Florida Board of Governors and 1983 alumnus, “John Hitt has left an amazing and lasting mark…. His efforts to expand the university and our community are extraordinary; his standards of integrity and partnership exemplary. He is truly a community hero.”

In 1992, when Hitt became the university’s leader, the school was just an adolescent by the standard of other universities. UCF’s enrollment ranked 115th in the nation and fifth in Florida. Almost twenty-five years later, UCF has emerged as the nation’s second-largest university and Florida’s largest, while becoming a major metropolitan research university with a global impact. In addition, is it poised to begin work on an ambitious new downtown campus that will inevitably change the urban environment of Orlando, creating a magnet for Florida’s talent pipeline and jump-starting many of regions tech startup initiatives.

Building a Culture of Collaboration

Always pragmatic in his approach, Hitt explained why he was drawn to inclusion and partnership. “It seemed rather obvious, when I became involved with university administration, that if we acted alone we were unlikely to accomplish the big goals. But, if we pooled resources and acted in our mutual interests we could accomplish so much more. You have to decide in life and in setting goals, would you like the whole of something very small or a smaller part of something enormous?” Then he quoted Central Florida Partnership and Orlando Inc. President Jacob Stuart, “We don’t do partnerships because they are easier, but because they are better.”

“A partnership can never be based on all the giving being on one side and all the taking on the other,” Hitt continued. “That’s not a partnership and it doesn’t end well. You must be honest about the challenges and determine if you really do have an endeavor that you can work together on, which provides mutual benefit. Otherwise, don’t waste your time. By getting people to think in terms of mutual benefit and to see opportunities, while experiencing successes, you build a culture of collaboration.”

Largely due to Hitt’s influence, the strategy of partnership has spread like a virus affecting the very DNA of the entire region. As Judy Bense, president of the University of West Florida said, “John is a visionary for the 21st century. He is a role model for regional university presidents in the United States. He’s never forgotten his roots and is known as the ‘partnership president.’”

Though his influence reaches far and wide and his initiatives have been the catalysis for growth in the modeling, simulation & training industry, for Orlando immerging as a hub for healthcare and health sciences, and now advanced manufacturing, he is first and foremost a man of the academy. When he pondered his legacy, that is the first place he pointed, “We have managed to have a lot of growth at the university, while we also have maintained and expanded quality. I hope people will remember me as one who has a profound respect for the faculty. You can’t even have a good university, without a first-rate faculty. It is easy to fail to tell them how important and significant they are, while defending them and their academic freedom. I also hope people realize I am always looking for something better. Whatever we’ve done, we know there is always something more.”

Beyond the Campus

Hitt’s part in building a world class and world recognized university is an attainment he enjoys with very few peers. However, for many who have never been on the campus, his role as a leader in economic development and innovation puts him in a class all his own. The inspiration for that vision germinated early in his career.

“When I was in administration at Texas Christian University, one of the members of our advisory council was Fred Terman.” Terman has been called “The Father of Silicon Valley.” He shared with Hitt and others at TCU how he had arranged some space in the attic of the engineering school at Stanford for a couple of guys named Hewlett and Packard. “He saw what happened in the Route 128 area around Boston during and after World War II and could see the same potential for high tech development at Stanford. Terman grew up on the Stanford campus and when he returned he became engineering dean. He had the vision that if you utilized the resources of the university along with investment capital, some amazing things could happen and they did. When he told those war stories it really stuck with me,” Hitt recalled.

He also mentioned Joe Volker, a dentist, who built a substantial medical empire and then became President of the University in Alabama, Birmingham. Volker helped transform a city which had hit an economic iceberg having been the center of the south’s steel industry, into one of the most substantial biomedical hubs in the country. “These individuals taught me how to look for opportunities, and nudge things in that direction. Of course, the first big ones were here, but it takes a while to get the resources that can make these substantial projects a reality,” Hitt said.

“Think about what happened here, and this one really was initiated before I came, a 1000 acre research park right up against a very young emerging university. Not many are able to see those opportunities and seize them. Where would we be without the modeling, simulation and training industry that is housed here? $5 Billion a year flows through there and most of it stays right here in Central Florida,” he emphasized.

Keeping UCF Golden

One of Hitt’s most consistent themes for the university is affordability and accessibility. “We can build a great institution, but accessibility is directly linked affordability, if you can’t afford it the accessibility argument is mute. UCF on a national comparison is very affordable, now that is great news for the students and I suppose the parents, but it presents challenges to people in my position.”

The climate, the affordable cost of living and access to transportation amenities like Orlando International Airport are all selling points in recruiting top tier academic talent. But Hitt is quick to add, “You can’t pay your mortgage with sunshine.” Hitt explained that one of the growing advantages in recruiting research and faculty talent often has to do with the types of opportunities that may be available for the faculty members spouse. “The economic growth and diversity of the area, especially in the high tech, is proving to be a great plus for us in multiple ways.”

As talent recruitment and retention becomes the competitive factor, not only for universities but companies around the world, Hitt is uniquely positioned and one of the most visionary and responsive university presidents to market demands. “Electronic Arts (EA Sports) came to us to help them develop a program, because if you train your talent here, they are more likely to stay here and retaining highly desirable game developers is very challenging. Our program has become ranked as the best masters level game development program in North America.

This was just the segway Hitt needed to turn his discussion to one of the most far reaching and potentially transformative initiatives in the universities history, the new downtown campus. “It will be an interesting project, based on what I saw at Arizona State, and will bring an immediate infusion of energy downtown, both academic and economic. Initially I was a real sceptic of this concept, but when I saw it, well I was converted immediately. What they said they had done, they did,” he said.

“This will be good for the city, good for our students and is following the trend of millennials migrating into new urban areas. We will have 14 different majors that will be offered exclusively downtown. The impact of this campus should reach critical mass very quickly with the number of students, UCF and Valencia, being located there. It will change the dynamic of downtown Orlando. 

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i4 Business

i4 Business magazine has become one of the most trusted voices for and about the Central Florida business community. Each month through our print and digital platforms, we provide access to meet, to learn from and to learn about some of the incredible entrepreneurs and business leaders who are shaping our region.

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