UCF presidential candidate plans to strengthen fundraising, research if elected

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UCF presidential candidate Suresh Garimella said Thursday he will focus on strengthening UCF’s capacity for fundraising and research if elected.

Garimella has been the executive vice president for research and partnerships at Purdue University since 2014 and is also a Goodson Distinguished professor of mechanical engineering at the university, according to his curriculum vitae, which is similar to a resume. The Goodson Distinguished professor title is gifted to those who make significant contributions to research and education.

More than a hundred people gathered in the Pegasus Grand Ballroom in the Student Union on UCF’s main campus Thursday to attend the fourth and final presidential candidate open forum.

During his presentation, Garimella said UCF Downtown and the expanding College of Medicine give UCF the ability to grow in a unique direction.

Garimella said the next steps for UCF should center on growing the university and its partnerships.

In order for UCF’s academic and research status to progress, the university needs more resources, Garimella said.

“There’s a lot of partnerships that are waiting to be made, and I think that will position  that will cement UCF’s uniqueness and position,” Garimella said.

Garimella said his background in research and partnerships is consistent with the steps he thinks UCF needs to take. Garimella worked to implement several research initiatives at Purdue including a $250 million Life Sciences Initiative, which aims to raise the ranking and recognition of the school’s life sciences programs by introducing new programs and increasing funding, according to his curriculum vitae.

When discussing the forum’s theme of “Scale x Excellence = Impact,” Garimella said “impact” is the most important piece of the equation.

“I think you can discuss scale by itself, but if you didn’t state what was the impact, then I’m not sure you would get to the right answer,” he said.

Hope Wade, who works for UCF’s First Year Experience department, asked Garimella if he would make changes to UCF’s Collective Impact Strategic Plan, which sets benchmarks and outlines metrics for UCF to meet by 2035.

He said the plan clearly lays out aspirational goals, but he would focus on outlining a clearer financial structure and possibly increase certain metrics in the plan such as fundraising.

“I don’t think too exclusive, but I think that anything has to be thought through very carefully, and increasingly in today’s world, the financial models and the financial sustainability of anything you take on have to be thought through before you enter a new initiative or a new program,” he said.

With Garimella’s heavy focus on the need to generate more resources for UCF, an audience member questioned him on how he would allocate funds if UCF was gifted a large sum of money.

Garimella said money from benefactors is usually tied to areas the donors are passionate about so it’s important to think about where funding is coming from.

Issues such as gun safety and the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program spurred Garimella to discuss the importance of building trusting relationships with lawmakers who can effect change.

He said allowing guns on campus would be a mistake and referred to the elimination of DACA as a “travesty,” adding that he would do all he could to support affected students.

Presidential Search Committee member Manoj Chopra said Garimella is the “full package,” although he said he would not publicly endorse any candidate yet.

Chopra agreed with Garimella’s research-oriented goals and said expansion is a good way to bolster UCF’s reputation. He also noted the candidate’s forthcoming attitude when answering questions on heated topics.

“He was not holding back on his views and where he would be on political issues, while he was being diplomatic because a president needs to be,” Chopra said.

UCF student Madison Kjosa asked Garimella how he would connect individually with students despite there being more than 66,000 of them.

“At UCF, President [John] Hitt had an uncanny way of meeting students at their level and connecting with them, so much that students now consider themselves part of the ‘Hitt Squad,’ ” she said.

Garimella said he would do his best to connect with students.

“The university exists for the student,” he said. “If we ever forget that, we shouldn’t be doing our jobs.”

Kjosa said she was satisfied with Garimella’s answer and that she liked the candidate, although she didn’t attend the previous three candidates’ forums for comparison.

“I think he connected with almost every person in this room, including the students,” Chopra said.

After another round of interviews with the four finalists, the UCF Board of Trustees will vote to name a president-elect Friday.

The Florida Board of Governors will vote on the selection on March 29.

UCF President John C. Hitt will retire effective June 30, and the new president will take over July 1.