It’s hard to imagine a more challenging time to assume the helm of a major university than April 2020.
By this time, the COVID-19 crisis had already transformed the economic and educational landscapes – a double dose of new reality for The Corridor region, where the two are closely intertwined.
For incoming University of Central Florida (UCF) President Alexander N. Cartwright, it was certainly not a typical onboarding process. But, true to form, the innovator approached his unique situation not as a setback, but as an opportunity to exercise new and creative forms of communication. Cartwright pressed on with his original plans for hearing from students and hosting introductory meetings with countless other members of the UCF and Central Florida community almost entirely through video conferencing technology.
Leading from Shared Experience
Cartwright is uniquely suited to his new position, as well as to determinedly working his way through tough challenges.
A native of the Bahamas, he emigrated to the United States with his mother when he was 17. Rather than finish his secondary education in an American high school, he chose to earn his GED, moving straight to community college and then university in his new home state of Iowa. His goal was to become the first in his family to earn a degree.
Along the way, Cartwright held several jobs to finance his studies, including stints at a Stuckey’s roadside convenience store and at a hog confinement building. He also worked as a custodian in a factory for hydraulic systems manufacturing, which would become the inspiration behind his pursuit of both bachelor’s and doctoral degrees in electrical and computer engineering.
His journey mirrors those of many UCF students – nearly a quarter of whom are the first in their families to attend college and almost half of whom work at least 20 hours per week while earning their degrees.
That common ground gives Cartwright solid insight into the university he now leads. “We’ve lived the dream that higher education enables,” he explained, referring to himself and his wife, who he met while attending the University of Iowa.
Previously, Cartwright served as chancellor for the University of Missouri’s main campus in Columbia, where he helped lead the school through challenging race-relations issues. There, he developed a five-year blueprint for innovation and growth, “Flagship of the Future,” while also successfully leading a campaign to raise $1.3 billion for the university.
Along with an impressive track record in higher education administration, Cartwright is an internationally noted scholar of photonics. In fact, research conducted by UCF’s world-renowned CREOL, The College of Optics and Photonics, is what first landed the university on his radar. Cartwright was impressed by the volume of CREOL research projects conducted in partnership with businesses across The Corridor region.
“I noticed the entrepreneurship opportunities here first and realized Central Florida has a disproportionate amount of research working with industry compared to other universities. You could see how the cluster of industries located in The Corridor leveraged the schools’ expertise.”
When the opportunity to lead UCF presented itself, Cartwright was already intrigued. He wanted to join the movement.
Clearly, Cartwright is no stranger to hard work and overcoming challenges – and he’s ready for the once-a-century task of navigating the future in a post-pandemic world. Even better, he’s confident the region is ready for it, too.
“In all my conversations, one common trait that has especially stood out to me is the remarkable sense of optimism here in Central Florida,” said Cartwright. “We certainly have unprecedented challenges ahead, but that hasn’t dampened the spirit. We will overcome.”
Cartwright believes this very optimism, coupled with what he views as unique regional teamwork, is what will guide UCF and The Corridor forward.
“It’s amazing that we have the University of South Florida, the University of Florida, UCF and their presidents all committed to leveraging all of our expertise for the benefit of Floridians. That’s something special – an entity encompassing 23 counties, all focused on a common goal. There’s remarkable talent and innovation taking place across the region. Dr. Currall and Dr. Fuchs are amazing leaders. The more we work together, the more we will realize how we can move society forward. I’m excited to be part of it.”
That said, Cartwright is hardly Pollyanna-ish about the tough road ahead. He knows significant changes are likely in order to create a new future that enables student success. “How do we bring everybody back to campus? What does that look like now? How do we continue to increase retention and graduation rates in a more restricted environment? These are the first questions we need to answer,” he explained.
Simultaneously, Cartwright sees tremendous opportunity to contribute to regional growth, pointing to what he calls “amazing potential” to grow The Corridor Council’s ongoing collaboration with industry. “That’s a strength we have. UCF is a metropolitan university, and there’s even more we can do to leverage that in terms of research and relationships with industry and federal agencies.”
A researcher at heart, he intuitively understands how university research and innovative industry go hand in hand, and he hopes to find new ways to leverage UCF’s immersive, experiential metropolitan spirit in this way.
Cartwright also had encouraging words for technology executives considering Florida as a location going forward. “You’ll find plenty of opportunity here,” he said, again citing the core of what fuels The Corridor’s engine: teamwork and partnerships with universities. “It’s an ecosystem offering both a critical mass of technology companies and multiple great universities to work with – those are the two real keys to long-term success. We’re committed to educating and delivering a top-notch workforce, to staying agile and continuing to support industry with leading-edge research and ongoing opportunities to keep that workforce at the top of its game.”
In short, everything has changed, but at the same time, the foundation of The Corridor’s economic success remains rock solid and rooted in the values that have served this region for more than a quarter century.