The other day I was saddened to hear about the passing of former University of Central Florida (UCF) president John C. Hitt.
President Hitt, who was 82-years-old when he died, became UCF’s fourth president in 1992 and retired from the post in June 2018. He was a transformational figure at UCF. Over the course of his 26-years at the helm, President Hitt ushered in an era of explosive growth and opportunity both in terms of facilities and enrollments.
President Hitt, transformed the UCF campus on the Orange and Seminole County lines from a commuter school withering in the shadow of larger universities like Florida State University and the University of Florida, to the second largest university by enrollment in the country.
UCF’s enrollment tripled from 21,000 students to more than 66,000 by his retirement.
Enrollment was not the only thing that grew during President Hitt’s tenure at UCF. Under his watch, UCF opened a College of Medicine and created momentum for the ultimate construction of an on-campus football stadium.
To celebrate his 20th year leading UCF, the on-campus library, which was the first building on campus that was open to students, was renamed in his honor.
While much will be said over the coming days about President Hitt’s legacy, my association with him is a little more personal.
During my time as an undergraduate at UCF, I created a student newspaper called Knight Times, which I ran for three years with the help of some very dedicated staff and friends.
Eight months after forming the paper, I wanted to do something that both set the paper apart from our better funded competitors, and also showed that we were not afraid to go to the top.
To accomplish that goal, I decided that I wanted to interview President Hitt.
To my surprise and delight, he accepted the offer and a two-part series about his vision for UCF’s future was created.
For President Hitt, the interview was likely just another appointment on his calendar that day.
However for me, it showed that not only had Knight Times arrived in terms of being taken seriously, but I had shown that I could score big interviews as a journalist.
I have interviewed thousands of people in my journalism career. I even had some pretty high-profile interviews during my time as editor in chief of my high school newspaper.
However, my interview with President Hitt was the first time that I felt that I had scored the interview through my own efforts and was being taken seriously as an equal to journalists who had been in the field longer than I had.
Knight Times lasted an additional two years after my interview with President Hitt ran.
The visions President Hitt outlined in that interview have lasted much longer.
At the time of my interview, President Hitt was in his fifth year at the helm. However, even then it was clear that he had a strong sense of where things were headed as noted by the quote from the interview below.
“If I had to look out and see what my fondest dream 15-20 years from now it would be that we would be recognized as the premiere metropolitan university, that we would be a Research One according to the Carnegie Commission’s classifications, and that we would still be regarded as having a lot of concern for an excellence in undergraduate education,” Hitt said.
That desire became a reality in the years that followed drawing attention from some pretty powerful figures along the way.
Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush once said that it was his belief that, “Walt Disney and John Hitt have done more to transform Central Florida into a vibrant, dynamic place than any two people.”
In addition to being focused on growth, President Hitt knew that it was attention to the students that really mattered as referenced in another quote from that 1997 interview.
“A lot of people around the country see campuses where faculty members won’t cooperate together or with the administration. We don’t have that here,” Hitt said. “We have a real good community atmosphere here. We have got a pretty darn good situation here at UCF and we are proud of it.”
Two and a half years after my interview with President Hitt, our paths crossed once again as he handed me my diploma on the graduation stage inside the UCF Arena signaling the end of my time at UCF, and the beginning of the next phase of my professional journalism career.
Speaking as one of the thousands of Knights who benefited from your leadership, we are pretty proud to have called you our president. Charge On, President Hitt, and thank you for granting me that interview so many years ago.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I am off to read some more articles from the Knight Times archives.
Copyright 2023 R. Anderson