UCF State of the University Address discusses diversity, UCF Downtown, sports

In addition to questions from Grant Heston, UCF President John C. Hitt answers questions from online guest speakers such as UCF alumni, students and faculty. UCF State of the University Address, Oct. 17, 2017. Photo by Santo Dileo.

Editor’s note: This article incorrectly referred to UCF Downtown as Downtown UCF. 

UCF President John C. Hitt discussed UCF and its dedication to diversity at the 2017 UCF State of the University Address on Tuesday.

When Hitt became president of UCF in 1992, the student population had a diversity rate of 15 percent, Vice President of Communications and Marketing Grant Heston said.

As of this fall, that number has risen to 46 percent, Heston, 44, said.

“It makes me feel great, but I also know we have a long way to go,” Hitt, 76, said.

Inclusivity gives students, faculty and alumni a sense of ownership at the university and makes it a productive learning environment, Hitt said.

A crowd of nearly 500 people filled the Pegasus Grand Ballroom in the Student Union on UCF’s main campus to hear Hitt speak.

UCF President John C. Hitt discusses the future of UCF at the 2017 State of the University Address. UCF State of the University Address, Oct. 17, 2017. Photo by Santo Dileo.

For the first time, the event almost entirely featured online guest speakers asking Hitt questions, which touched on topics ranging from UCF Downtown to sports.

UCF students Beth Young and Jeff Strange of the UCF President’s Leadership Council, a group that recognizes well-rounded students who excel in leadership, academics and extracurricular activities, asked about the importance of first-generation college students.

Hitt, a first-generation college student himself, said it was his father’s dream for him to go to college.

Going to college is too good of an opportunity to pass up, Hitt said.

About a quarter of UCF students are first-generation college students, he said.

“We are much more successful than most universities in getting those students through to a successful and happy outcome,” Hitt said.

UCF President John C. Hitt explains the importance of a college degree. UCF State of the University Address, Oct. 17, 2017. Photo by Santo Dileo.

Superintendent of Orange County Public Schools and UCF alumna Barbara Jenkins asked about the future of UCF Downtown, which is projected to open in 2019, according to a September update.

The campus’ construction will be the focus of the upcoming months, Hitt said.

The downtown campus idea was inspired by Arizona State University, he said.

“Most of the good things that come about during my career have come because I steal good ideas,” he said.

The downtown campus wouldn’t be possible if it weren’t for the generosity and positive response from Orlando officials such as Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer, Hitt said.

Both UCF and ASU are part of the University Innovation Alliance, a coalition of 11 public research universities across the country that are committed to making college degrees accessible to a diverse population, according to its website.

Dyer and several UCF Board of Trustees vice presidents and deans lined the front rows of the audience.

“We’ve had a wonderful continuity of collaborative leadership,” Hitt said.

Joyce Virga, UCF alumna class of 1998 and creator of the Virga Family Scholarship that supports students with a passion for entrepreneurship, asked about Hitt’s thoughts on building a culture of philanthropy at UCF.

Instead of the old adage “Give ‘til it hurts,” Hitt opts for “Give ‘til it feels good,” he said.

He said he hopes to teach people of all ages that giving at any level is meaningful.

“Every gift matters, every donor matters,” Hitt said.

Small, golden knight figurines adorn tables in the Pegasus Grand Ballroom. UCF State of the University Address, Oct. 17, 2017. Photo by Santo Dileo.

Former Governor of Florida Jeb Bush surprised Hitt as the first online guest speaker. Bush said he wanted to check in on the UCF College of Medicine that he helped finalize in 2006. The state-of-the-art facilities at UCF’s Health Sciences Campus at Lake Nona would have struck Hitt as “really ambitious” 10 years ago, he said.

Hitt also praised the UCF Knights football team, saying the team’s 5-0 season is its “best start ever.”

Hitt said this Saturday’s football game against the “tough and disciplined” Navy Midshipmen, which represents the U.S. Naval Academy, will be difficult, but UCF could still be victorious.

In addition, Hitt praised the UCF women’s basketball and soccer team’s recent performances, acknowledging the necessity for fairness on the field.

“There’s no lasting joy in cheating,” Hitt said. “We have to have coaches, staff members and players to understand the importance of playing by the rules.”

This article was originally published Oct. 18, 2017.