Leading Alumnus Looks Back at University’s Impact
In 1963, Academy Award-winning actor and director Clint Eastwood was a teen heartthrob starring in the TV series “Rawhide” as Rowdy Yates. Beatlemania was just starting to gain momentum and the last Studebaker automobile was made in the U.S. The nation mourned the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, touchtone phones were introduced, along with zip codes and pull-top aluminum cans.
In that same year, in Tallahassee, Governor Farris Bryant signed Legislative Bill 125, officially creating a new state university. Fifty years later, the University of Central Florida (UCF) – would become the largest university in the state and the second largest in the country.
Since its inception, UCF’s influence on the region has grown right along with its student body. Few central Florida leaders have been more closely identified with the astonishing progress of UCF than Rick Walsh, who back in 1976 was elected student body president. Walsh would later become a founding member of the Board of Trustees and served as its Chair. The former senior vice president of corporate affairs for Darden Restaurants, Inc. continues to serve the community he loves with visionary leadership on countless boards and as an advisory board member with a number of companies.
Anything Is Possible!
Walsh came to the area from South Dakota in the late 60s as a medical corpsman in the Navy, which at the time occupied the land that today is Baldwin Park. By the time his enlistment was up, he saw the potential the area offered and for him the idea of returning to the frigid plains of the Dakotas had little appeal. He reflected, “It was an opportune time and today I couldn’t imagine living anywhere else. Disney was opening its gates and equally important, the airport gained international status; we all knew the area was destined to grow.”
For Walsh, being a part of that growth meant continuing his education at the new university, which only had around 7,000 students at the time and was called Florida Technological University. The school was the perfect fit given his lean budget as a working student. “It was an exciting place to be. The university opened with the vision of providing scientists and engineers to be a part of the space program.” (UCF is one of the 52 “Space Grant Colleges” in the U.S.) “Whether it was what we were doing in space or the magic of the theme park industry, there was a prevailing attitude in the region and on the campus that ‘anything is possible,” Walsh recalled.
What Made It Great
That ‘anything is possible’ attitude is characteristic of Walsh’s “American Dream” career. Asked how he became student body president, he replied, “It is a mystery; when I gave my first speech I actually passed out!” But there are certain things that have, and continue, to connect Walsh to the university. “What UCF has always had is a tremendous sense of community and community involvement – that appealed to me coming from a Midwest farm culture. Many people don’t know that UCF wasn’t a land grant college like UF or FSU; there was no land endowment. The property that UCF is located on was secured because 89 local businesspeople made a personal pledge to underwrite the purchase of those initial 1,100 acres. Sure, land was cheaper then, but it was by no means cheap.”
For Walsh, the things that attracted him to UCF years ago are the things he champions at the university today – like a strong commitment to accessibility. “Everyone connected with the university is dedicated to ensuring every student who wants a degree from a four-year college has that opportunity. Even if their high school years were less than stellar, they can attend one of the community colleges through the ‘Direct Connect’ program, and once they have successfully completed the two year requirements, access is guaranteed.”
Talent, Tenure and Flexibility
“I think there were two other primary factors that led to UCF’s success,” Walsh explained. “One was the incredible talent and long tenure of the school’s presidents.” John Hitt celebrates his 20th anniversary this year and there have been just four other presidents in the school’s 50-year history. “The other key factor was a change Gov. Jeb Bush made to the laws covering the governing boards of state universities. Had this governance structure not changed – where the trustees were authorized to act, to do our own bond programs and fundraising – there would be no UCF football or Bright House Stadium; there would be no medical school or medical center. This was one of those seemingly ‘little things’ that had major consequences. It empowered the local leadership to set and pursue a vision.”
Today, that partnership and collaboration continue to ignite the local economy. The simulation industry continues to grow and expand right along with medical research, rising from a student population that represents every state in the union and 120 foreign countries. Rick Walsh concluded, “The possibilities are so staggering; I wish I could be around in 50 years to see what the University and the community will become.”