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UCF on move, in size and, it hopes, stature

The state's second-largest public university aims to get on the map with big plans for a medical school, stadium.

By SHANNON COLAVECCHIO-VAN SICKLER
Published September 4, 2006


[Times photo: Melissa Lyttle]
Lora Johnston , 22, of Kissimmee, takes a lesson in rock climbing at the University of Central Florida's popular, $14-million recreation center.

ORLANDO - Even the people who run the University of Central Florida call it "the biggest university you've never heard of."

That didn't matter to 21-year-old Iyan McGregor.

He chose UCF over the University of Florida because of UCF's hospitality management program. He also was impressed with the college's resort-like amenities, including a $14-million recreation center with an indoor track, a 41-foot rock climbing wall, a sparkling pool and a smoothie bar.

"I got accepted into all the universities I applied to, but I just felt like this was something that was going to take off," said McGregor, of Coral Springs. "It's like a dream here."

While almost a century younger than UF and Florida State University, the state's best-known schools, UCF is a rising star in Florida's university system. It is the second-largest public university, with about 47,000 students enrolled for fall classes.

That's bigger than the University of South Florida by several thousand bodies, and enough to make UCF one of the 10 largest universities in the United States.

Research funding has topped $100-million for the second year in a row. And the SAT scores of incoming freshmen are approaching 1,200 - up more than 50 points from five years ago.

Future chefs and hotel operators learn their craft inside the Rosen College of Hospitality Management, a swanky, $28-million facility near Disney World. UCF's College of Optics and Photonics, the first of its kind in the country, works with private companies developing lasers used in military warfare and the detection of chemical and biological weapons. The engineering program is a pipeline to nearby Lockheed Martin.

Yet longtime President John Hitt concedes that many people - even those living in Central Florida - can't tell you how to get to his suburban Orlando campus.

"There's still a lot of people in Orlando and Central Florida who don't know all that we do," Hitt said.

That may not be the case for much longer.

UCF administrators have collected more than $50-million in donations and land for a long-sought medical school. The California-based Burnham Institute for Medical Research recently announced that it will put its new Florida operation in the same Lake Nona development where UCF plans the school.

UCF's football program is growing, which brings coveted national television coverage. Construction workers are completing millions of dollars worth of campus projects, including a 45,000-seat football stadium, new engineering and psychology buildings, and dorms surrounded by shops and restaurants such as Ron Jon Surf Shop and Barnes & Noble.

Cranes are so prevalent on this fast-growing campus that students and staff joke that UCF stands for "Under Construction Forever."

Not that they mind the dust. Attracted to UCF's location, course offerings and amenities, an increasing number of students are making UCF their first choice -instead of a runner-up to UF or USF.

"Four years ago, UCF was an average, moderate school," McGregor said. "Now it has just exploded. My sister goes to Harvard. She comes to visit, and even she is impressed."

* * *

Classes for UCF's first 1,948 students began in the fall of 1968, eight years after USF opened its doors.

Though enrollment grew steadily, UCF wasn't a top choice for many students. It didn't have the rich history of UF and FSU. Unlike USF, it didn't have a medical school to bring in federal research money and attention.

When Hitt arrived at UCF in 1992, he found a campus of about 22,000 students that he said had fallen into complacency.

"Our admissions program was based on the premise that students were just knocking down the doors to get in. But they weren't," Hitt said. "We were kind of sitting back and letting them come to us."

So UCF embarked on an ambitious program of self-improvement.

Administrators focused on strengthening academic programs that fit with the surrounding area's economy: education, engineering and tourism-related degree programs like hospitality management.

"We weave ourselves into the economic fabric of the region," said M.J. Soileau, vice president for research.

Hitt and others recognized that state money would never cover the initiatives and facilities needed to lure today's discriminating students, so they got creative.

"We had to be entrepreneurial: How to do with less, and do it well?" said Bill Merck, vice president of administration and finance. "That's been the spirit from the beginning.

They went after private donations and partnerships. Orlando hotelier Harris Rosen, a Cornell University graduate, donated more than $18-million to create the hospitality management college that opened in 2004. Bright House Networks signed a $15-million naming rights deal to help build the football stadium. Lake Nona developers donated 50 acres for the medical school, plus $12-million.

When UCF officials decided to build a 10,000-seat convocation center near the stadium, they created a bigger project, a sort of town square for students, that includes the planned Ron Jon Surf Shop and other revenue-generating retail to help cover the $250-million cost.

Administrators used student fees to build UCF's nearly 5-year-old recreation center, a soaring, state-of-the-art glass structure that wows prospective students and their families.

"UCF has really good faculty and curriculum, but that can only take you so far," said 25-year-old Mark Freeman, a graduate student in environmental politics from Vero Beach. "UCF isn't a traditional college town like Gainesville or Athens, Ga., and when I got here a few years ago it felt like it was the middle of nowhere.

"But now freshmen are living on campus. There's football. UCF has kind of created its own town."

* * *

About 40 percent of UCF's Florida students are from surrounding Orange, Seminole and Volusia counties. The majority come from other parts of the state, meaning UCF is no longer a "commuter school" that draws just from the local population.

Last fall, UCF enrolled 1,640 students from Pinellas County, nearly 1,050 from Hillsborough and about 340 from Pasco.

UCF's total enrollment surpassed that of USF in 2003, by 70 students. In the years since, the gap has widened to about 3,800 students.

With the SAT scores of this fall's entering freshmen expected to be at or near 1,200, Hitt said UCF has "pretty clearly established that we are on par with FSU. When I got to Tallahassee, I keep hearing about the 'Big Three.' Us, FSU and UF."

Asked recently about UCF's growth and student profile, USF president Judy Genshaft said, "There are organizations that speak louder than they are."

"Some don't speak as loud as they should, and I think that's been our case," she said. "Our measure isn't enrollment. It's about raising the quality, upping our graduate enrollment."

* * *

UCF trustees recently signed a $450,000-a year contract that will keep Hitt, 65, at the school's helm for at least three more years. He had a heart attack in June and last week had two stents placed into an artery, but he was back at work within a few days.

Hitt said he'll use his next few years at UCF to build the medical school, which still needs legislative approval and tens of millions of taxpayer dollars.

"We have a way to go," he said. "But this is a wonderful place, and I think people are increasingly realizing that."

Shannon Colavecchio-Van Sickler can be reached at 813 226-3403 or svansickler@sptimes.com.

[Last modified September 4, 2006, 01:38:33]


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