Intercollegiate athletics has been a priority since Wilson Bradshaw became president in 2007.
FGCU now is a full-fledged member of NCAA Division I, and Bradshaw is chairman of the Atlantic Sun Conference’s council of presidents.
One move that could boost FGCU’s visibility is adding football to its slate of 15 sports.
Last year, Bradshaw commissioned a study that essentially said football isn’t financially feasible at this point. Several A-Sun schools recently added football, despite statistics showing just a handful of colleges nationwide don’t lose money on the sport.
“There is some pressure coming from them, and even within the state university system,”
Bradshaw said. “Next year, FGCU and the University of North Florida will be the only state universities without football.”
“Will we have it in five years? I think in five years we will be going down that path.”
When Wilson Bradshaw assumed FGCU’s presidency five years ago, the house wasn’t exactly on solid ground.
And it didn’t take long before everything unraveled.
In 2007, Florida began slashing its higher education budget and donors started holding back their generosity as the economy nosedived. Enrollment shot through the roof as teens opted for college instead of work. Tensions boiled over gender equity in athletics and administration.
Bradshaw, who celebrates his fifth anniversary today, leads an institution that looks nothing like it did when he arrived, both on paper and conceptually. It has 25 more buildings, 2,224 more beds in residence halls, 4,082 more students, 230 more employees and nine more academic programs.
Despite that growth, it also has more worries. Budget cuts have seeped into all facets of the university, forcing FGCU into its first job cuts. Still, Bradshaw remains optimistic.
“While we have been challenged to manage scarce resources, I think we have risen to that challenge,” he said.
FGCU graduates boast higher employment rates and salaries than peers within the state university system. It also doubled the number of students majoring in high-demand fields like science and engineering, and continued driving its environmental mission with a solar farm and innovation hub that’s focused on green technologies.
“A young and growing university like FGCU requires a leader with a clear vision for the future and an understanding of how to make it happen,” said Frank Brogan, chancellor of Florida’s university system. “President Bradshaw is guiding the university through both exciting and challenging times, and his sense of purpose remains as resolute as day one.
“No doubt, FGCU has a very bright future.”
FGCU opened its doors in 1997 as a commuter institution that primarily attracted working adults. Its niche was distance education, capitalizing on the surge of interest in and acceptance of online learning. However, the university has morphed into a “comprehensive regional residential university,” as Bradshaw calls it, that serves the intellectual and workforce needs of Southwest Florida.
“We started on the right course, and I think we’re still on the right course,” Bradshaw said.
The first five
Bradshaw was the last of 79 candidates to submit an application for FGCU president, and he was the last man standing when the Board of Trustees made its selection.
“I can’t imagine a better day in my life,” Bradshaw, now 62, said at the time.
Although he was raised and educated in Florida, Bradshaw left the state before FGCU was founded. Upon his return, Bradshaw joined a university that offers no tenure, but supports collaboration with faculty. FGCU’s campus was growing, but lacked a campus life.
“I think once Dr. Bradshaw stepped foot on campus, he demonstrated he ‘got it,’ ” said Jameson Yingling, a 26-year-old graduate who served on FGCU’s presidential search committee. “He was accessible and engaging. He wanted to be a part of the family, and to do so knew he needed to know and understand the family. So I saw right away that he was a leader who sought to listen before acting.”
Financial constraints, however, have taken a toll. Bradshaw has recommended double-digit tuition increases to compensate for reduced funding. Five years ago, in-state undergraduates paid $3,763 annually for a full load of classes; today, they pay $6,068, a 61 percent increase. Meanwhile, state support fell from $52 million in Bradshaw’s first year to $37 million this year.
Students are starting to feel other impacts. Undergraduate class sizes have crept up, rising from a 32-student average five years ago to 34.5 this fall, according to preliminary numbers. . FGCU also is offering fewer course sections, and Bradshaw is concerned if students can’t enroll in the classes they need, it will take longer to graduate.
Despite tough times, freshman Alison Stevens, 18, said the university has lived up to her expectations.
“I feel like everything is going well,” said Stevens, an athletic training major from Miami.
Stevens is part of a rising group of FGCU students who aren’t from the university’s defined service area of Lee, Collier, Charlotte, Hendry and Glades County. Half the student body comes from other parts of Florida, the nation or world, and Bradshaw says that wider reach has diversified the student body.
The minority rate has risen from 18 percent to 28 percent in five years, and this year’s freshmen class boasts higher SAT scores, ACT scores and high school grade point averages than some previous entering classes.
“Our reputation has gotten better and better, so the number of applicants has increased and so has our ability to attract more students from outside the region,” Bradshaw said. “We’re now importing talent, and that has contributed to the success and reputation of the university.”
Since 2007, FGCU has a net gain of nine new academic programs, including its first doctoral degrees in education and physical therapy.
Bradshaw hasn’t gotten universal support for everything he’s done, though, In 2008, he issued a directive that prohibited staff from displaying Christmas trees, Menorahs and other religious symbols or decorations. Criticism went international, and Bradshaw retreated.
“He tried to be politically correct, but he didn’t recognize how inclusive we are and how close-knit of a group everyone is on this campus,” said Elizabeth Elliott, president of the faculty union and a professor of early childhood education.
Bradshaw also took heat for approving two out-of-court gender equity claims for a combined $4.2 million, as well as a $653,872 retirement payout to a former athletic director central to complaints from several coaches.
Faculty have been unsuccessful in attaining benefits for domestic partners and readjusting pay for longstanding faculty who’ve seen newcomers hired at higher salaries, according to Elliott.
Bradshaw’s predecessor, William Merwin, had a booming personality and was held in high regard by students, faculty and staff, but especially donors. FGCU raised $175 million during Merwin’s eight years in office.
By comparison, FGCU has raised $80 million during Bradshaw’s five years. The economy was booming during Merwin’s presidency, however. Not only was Bradshaw new to the community in 2007, but he also was faced with trying to convince benefactors to support FGCU even as their investments shrunk.
FGCU’s endowment, which supports scholarship and professorships, has grown from $44 million to $56 million in five years.
The key in FGCU’s continued development is building strong academic programs and pursuing industry accreditation in all departments, Bradshaw says, instead of adding degrees without adequate funding. He has tried to reign in that growth as FGCU eyes quality over quantity.
“We were spreading our roots rather wide, and were trying, rightly so, to get that core group of academic programs established,” Bradshaw said. “We’re not all the way there now, but we are very close to getting there.”
The next five
Trustees granted Bradshaw a new contract that keeps him in charge until June 2017. He earns a $358,864 base salary, $50,000 housing allowance and annual bonus potential of $80,000. His contract also provides a vehicle and a five-year longevity bonus worth $375,000. Bradshaw said consistent leadership is vital in managing the college’s progress.
“This next five years will be characterized not so much by record growth, but our roots growing deeper,” Bradshaw said of enhancing academic quality.
Double-digit enrollment increases may be a thing of the past, and that’s intentional. FGCU’s budget grows bleaker with every new student it enrolls, so the university will hold back acceptance letters from students whose academic profiles might have been satisfactory in past years.
“Going forward, there will be students who meet our admission criteria who won’t be admitted,” Bradshaw said. “We just don’t have the space, nor are we getting the state resources that we once got that fueled our enrollment growth.”
One area that will increase, Bradshaw says, is online learning. The university doesn’t have to build new classrooms for virtual courses, but it charges the same tuition rate and receives the same state appropriation for those students. More degree programs will be conducted entirely online to attract adult learners, many of whom gravitated toward private institutions that offer a wider selection of virtual options.
“We’re going to take advantage of instructional technology with more online programs, not so much for freshmen and sophomores, but that working adult who may need an MBA or master’s in health science,” Bradshaw said.
As state universities emerge from multiple rounds of budget cuts, Bradshaw and other presidents are working with Gov. Rick Scott, the Board of Governors and legislators to develop a more predictable funding formula.
Florida’s average tuition rate of $6,232 ranks No. 41 nationally, below the national average of $8,655, but Scott advised universities last week to hold the line on tuition increases. The state is gravitating toward performance-based funding to reward institutions that produce graduates in high-demand fields who not only find employment, but earn good salaries.
Bradshaw has joined a chorus of educational leaders speaking against tuition hikes to compensate for state cuts.
“It is still affordable, but we can’t be cavalier about the possibility of putting up financial barriers to students,” Bradshaw said.
Freshman Andrew Moore was 3 when FGCU opened, and the Port Charlotte resident studied the university’s rapid growth as he was contemplating college options. He was accepted into 11 schools, but opted to stay at home because Bradshaw and other leaders laid a solid foundation.
“It’s developing in the right way,” said Moore, an 18-year-old double-majoring in music education and music performance.
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