Alexander Cartwright is president of the University of Central Florida in Orlando. Before joining UCF in April 2020, he was chancellor at the University of Missouri-Columbia. Earlier, he held administrative positions at The State University of New York and the University at Buffalo. He conducted research in optics and photonics and has a Ph.D. in electrical engineering. He and his wife, Melinda, have two children, Alyssa and Andrew. With about 70,000 students, UCF ranks as not only one of the nation’s largest universities but also a leader in innovation and social mobility. UCF offers more than 220-degree programs through its main campus, College of Medicine in Lake Nona’s Medical City, Rosen College of Hospitality Management in the heart of the tourism district, a campus in downtown Orlando, online programs and multiple UCF Connect locations throughout Central Florida.
What did you want to be when you were growing up in the Bahamas?
To be honest, I didn’t think about what I wanted to be. Money was tight and sometimes we were more worried about paying the rent, keeping the power on or getting our next meal. When your housing and food are insecure, you don’t think much about what you can be when you grow up because you don’t know what you can realistically attain. My mom is probably the smartest person I’ve ever met. She had an incredible ability to learn but never had the opportunity to further her education. I’m thankful I had that opportunity, and it’s why I know what we do at UCF matters.
You moved to Iowa when you were 17 and began working while determined to be the first person in your family to attend college, eventually earning a doctorate in electrical and computer engineering at the University of Iowa. What was your first job and what were its most important lessons?
My first job in the United States was cleaning hog confinement buildings on a farm. I remember that I smelled like the hogs even after a shower. After that, I worked at a Stuckey’s (a convenience store with a gas station). The job I’m most thankful for was working as a custodian in a factory that made hydraulic leveling systems for recreational vehicles. When people were out, I filled in and learned many different aspects of the building of the hydraulic jacks. The business owner suggested I consider pursuing engineering in college because I was good at working with my hands. I probably never would have considered engineering if he had not taken the time to have that conversation with me.
My individual experience reinforced that our job in higher education is to give people crucial opportunities at an affordable cost, to allow them to dream big and to accomplish their dreams and positively impact society. We need to break down the barriers and enable the next generation of innovators, creatives, scientists and others to reach their maximum potential.
How has your hard-fought academic success informed UCF’s commitment to eliminating achievement gaps and reducing barriers for students of all backgrounds and incomes?
It’s simple — I’ve lived it. Education changes lives, often for many generations. UCF is committed to providing hard-working students from every background the opportunity to earn degrees. UCF’s six-year graduation rate is about 74%, and we have outpaced the national average in closing achievement gaps between Hispanic, Black and white students.
The organization Education Reform Now ranks UCF No. 2 in the nation for social mobility impact. We have a large number of first-generation students, and we enroll more Pell Grant recipients than the 12 “Ivy Plus” universities combined. UCF is getting the job done, and we’re always focused on doing it even better.
As a champion billiards player, you have stressed the importance of strategy. What are your top priorities for UCF?
UCF will be the leading public metropolitan research university in the country, combining academic excellence with strong connections to industry and the region. We must focus on maximizing our impact and leveraging our strengths. That starts with our outstanding faculty, whose innovative research and creative works fuel our economy and make Central Florida an amazing place.
We will invest in hiring more world-class faculty, providing our students with access to their incredible talents and making sure UCF is the university of choice for any business in our region needing employees, critical expertise and any other support from higher education.
UCF was founded 58 years ago as Florida Technological University. Where do you see its current technological prowess, and how are you preparing students for high-paying, cutting-edge careers?
UCF was founded to provide talent to Florida’s space industry, and our graduates and research are even more critical to the space industry today. More than 25% of Kennedy Space Center employees are UCF graduates, and UCF research has flown on missions by Virgin Galactic, SpaceX and Blue Origin.
We provide more graduates to the aerospace and defense industries than any other university, and those industries rank us second in the country (to Georgia Tech) in providing excellent engineering graduates who can productively contribute to their businesses. Our student cybersecurity team has won four national championships, and UCF’s computer programming team regularly places among the best in the nation.
There is no doubt that UCF is preparing students for high-paying, future-focused careers. Our students are now and will continue to be industry leaders in space, defense, simulation, optics and lasers, cybersecurity, programming, engineering, video game design, medicine and biotechnology. It’s in our DNA.
Just look at what three-time UCF alumnus Darin Edwards accomplished in leading the research and development for Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccine. He credits his UCF experience with teaching him to explore independently, embrace curiosity and think critically.
Which parts of your job are you most excited about?
Starting my job during a pandemic made it difficult to meet with students, faculty, alumni, and industry and community leaders. I am eager to make more personal connections and build more of the relationships and partnerships that energize me and that are critical for UCF to succeed.
Where do you see UCF and Central Florida five years from now?
I’m excited about the future of UCF and our region. We’ve worked to create an ecosystem where the university and industry work together seamlessly for the benefit of Central Florida. UCF will continue to be a national leader in social mobility. In five years, our larger, world-class faculty will produce more research and creative works that impact our community and society. Our students will graduate at even higher rates, well prepared for careers with industry and serving our community. I hope the result for Central Florida will be continued economic growth, additional higher-paying jobs, a more diversified economy and a higher quality of life for all.
How will the $40 million unrestricted gift from philanthropists MacKenzie Scott and Dan Jewett strengthen UCF?
We are very grateful to Ms. Scott and Mr. Jewett. Their transformational gift validates the work our faculty and staff do to foster student success, and we are thankful these funds will enable us to increase our impact for generations of students. This donation allows us to continue doing what appealed to Scott and Jewett: innovate to bring opportunities for social mobility to lower-income, underrepresented and first-generation students. That’s a big part of what becoming the world’s leading public metropolitan research university is about — inspiring others to invest in the scholarship and work that build a better future for our students and society. This gift will enable new programs that help students succeed, fund groundbreaking faculty research, and grow established and future partnerships.
Let’s talk about football. What kind of year are you expecting under new Coach Gus Malzahn?
Melinda and I are excited to cheer on our Knights! We’re anticipating our student-athletes will give their best efforts in competition and in the classroom, and we’re looking forward to an outstanding year for all of our sports. Nine UCF teams advanced to the postseason in 2020-21, and our student-athletes have achieved a cumulative GPA of at least 3.0 for 27 consecutive semesters. Go Knights and Charge On!
If you could have any superpower, which would you choose?
I’d choose self-replication so I could send complete versions of myself to work on different things with the necessary focus they take. One “me” could learn a new language, one a musical instrument, one could teach and conduct research in optics and photonics, and another could be president. There’s just not enough time to do all of the things I would love to do. Fortunately, I do the one I love the most every day as president. Doing work that has an impact on the lives of so many people is a true blessing.