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Q&A With New UNF President David Szymanski On His First Day

David Szymanski

New University of North Florida president David Szymanski sat down with WJCT News on his first day on the job.  Szymanski, the former University of Cincinnati’s Carl H. Lindner College of Business Dean, replaces John Delaney who served as UNF’s president for the past 15 years.

Here is a summarized version of Szymanski’s interview:

Something about the former president John Delaney, is that he was deeply ingrained in the community. He spoke out about issues like LGBT rights and the mayor’s performance. Do you see that as the role of a university president and do you plan to fulfill that role?

“I look at the external role as being really important, part of that is getting integrated into the community, so being a leader, talking about your institution, being the face of the institution in the community and also creating that invite for the community to come into the institution I think is the important part of the question.

The issues that you might have to address will change over time and I think you sort of focus on them as they come along, but I think it really is the notion of  developing a partnership and so I think fundamentally that’s what the university president has to do.”

Tell me about how some of your prior experiences, boards you’ve served on or jobs, how do those uniquely prepare you for this role?

“I think some of the things that have been very beneficial in terms of my experience is not only reaching out to the community and developing those relationships, but I’ve also served on public company boards including right now I’m on the board of Office Depot which is a Boca Raton-based company so it’s a Fortune 500 company that also teaches you how to run a business in some respects and how to make decisions and how to work with a board which I think is also really important, but also how to treat people and make a difference so that it’s not just the business but there’s also a social impact that you make in terms of the communities that you’re in.”

Coming to UNF, what are you impressed by? What do you see as the university’s strengths?

“There are quite a few things that are really impressive but one is that the campus is a beautiful campus and that really is really impressive. So it’s that first impression. So you take an intangible of education and making it tangible.”

“I think some of the deciding factors that got me really excited about the institution was really seeing the passion that exists among our staff and within our faculty and among our students and that passion is a great foundation in which to build. You don’t always see that at institutions and I think that makes us unique in a lot of ways.”

What do you see as UNF’s weaknesses? What do you hope to improve or change here?

“There’s probably not the true, true weaknesses, but it’s how can we get better and continue to improve our trajectory. I think what I’d like to see in terms of some of the that we have transformational learning opportunities as a nice title that we put on these extracurricular activities that students engage in, which is study abroad and internships and I’d like us to really be more cognitive of how can we build that out and how can we make it such that our students have unparalleled experiences and experiences that are not duplicated. That’s what a major city like Jacksonville allows you to do.

I think we also begin to develop a spirit of innovation of how can we constantly improve and how do we constantly change? Not that change is changing from a negative to a positive, but it’s from a positive to even a greater positive.”  

“The world’s changing so quickly so how can you embrace that notion of how can we lead and how can we out in front and how can we be transformative?”

During your confirmation by the board of governors you said former president Delaney created an institution poised to go to the next level. What might that next level look like?

“I think it’s really further greatness. We have really excellent programs and we have some premiere programs. How can we create a situation where we have all our programs being premiere and even more programs that might allow students to be successful so it could be that you think about expanding some of not only the undergraduate offerings, but some of the graduate offerings to make it an enriched experience for our students.

I think then the other poised part of it, something you’ll hear from me is really those college-community partnerships that I think we have an opportunity to build out.”

Historically, the university’s graduation rate was an area of concern. It’s improved quite a bit, but do you still see it as an area of concern?

“I think we look at metrics and continue to want them to improve. Certainly the graduation rate has improved but I would like to see it always try to improve. No institutions probably have 100 percent, but you keep striving for that because you want students to be successful. There’s not a lot of value in somebody dropping out of school with some college on their resume. It’s kind of a social responsibility that I also look at in terms of making sure students who start here can also graduate with not a lot of debt and maybe no debt. Scholarships become important to this process.”

“Graduation is important, retention is always important and job placement is really important for our students.”

Are those (graduation rate, retention and job placement) the three key metrics to measure a university's success?

“I think those are among the keys. If you ask anyone if those are reasonable outcomes and things that you want to see from an institution, I think the answer is ‘yes.’ But I want us to think. It’s beyond those metrics. It’s about the holistic experience. It’s not just about the academics, but it’s about creating individuals who are going to be tomorrow’s leaders. It’s about character. It’s about integrity and trust and respect. [They] are the attributes we want to define our students.”

Each legislative session, the question of open carry on college campuses comes up. What are your thoughts on that?

“I haven’t had a chance to really think about that. You know I don’t think it’s an answer I can give you in two seconds. I think given everything that’s going on in the world today it’s a very complicated answer to come to and we certainly are concerned about the safety of our students and the responsibility. I don’t know where the state is with that but I think it’s one of those that you really do have to ask the key questions about safety and I think that as a leader of an institution you’re always concerned about the safety of your students and that’s certainly something I’m concerned about.”

Listen to the story aired on 89.9 FM.

Lindsey Kilbride can be reached at, 904-358-6359 or on Twitter at@lindskilbride.   

Lindsey Kilbride was WJCT's special projects producer until Aug. 28, 2020. She reported, hosted and produced podcasts like Odd Ball, for which she was honored with a statewide award from the Associated Press, as well as What It's Like. She also produced VOIDCAST, hosted by Void magazine's Matt Shaw, and the ADAPT podcast, hosted by WJCT's Brendan Rivers.