Pensacola, Florida
Friday December 15th 2017

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UWF’s Performance Turnaround

By Sammi Sontag

Dr. Martha Saunders, president of the University of West Florida, is optimistic about UWF’s future innovations and spoke highly of the school’s latest successes on the talk radio show “Pensacola Speaks” hosted by Inweekly publisher Rick Outzen on June 28.

UWF recently jumped in Florida’s public university ranking from one of the bottom three schools to one of the top three for 2016-17 school year. Saunders attributed the success to the effort put into investing in long-term strategies that not only increased the institution’s performance but also improved the overall quality of the education and experience provided.

“Well, this has been a campus-wide effort,” she said. “We have really doubled down our efforts on tracking our data better. Student retention and graduation rates are a top priority, but it’s also important whether our students are employed a year after college.”

Public universities in Florida are ranked on a system of metrics, which grades the schools on the percent of bachelor’s graduates enrolled in postgraduate school, academic progress rates and the number of students earning bachelor’s degrees in a timely manor.

The War Room
“It’s just a whole new set of things to look at that we had not previously needed to track. So we got all the right people around the table,” she told Inweekly.

Saunders continued, “We organized what I called ‘the war room’ and met every week. We still meet every week. It’s a mix of people. It’s not just the money people. It’s not just the enrollment people. It’s having them all in the room seems to make the difference. There’s been a real energy around this that. Then when we started seeing the needle move we thought, you know, we really can do this.”

The school’s funding had dropped in years past. But now that UWF ranks in the top three highest-performing state universities, the school will secure more than $20 million in new funding for the 2017-18 academic year, paving the road for even more future successes.

“We were able to receive money to finish a much-needed building, our lab sciences annex,” she said. “We got funding for a new advanced manufacturing initiative. The additional money from performance-based funding is going to just be a wonderful Godsend in being able to do more student support programs, making sure we’re properly staffed and moving forward.”

She continued, “Enrollment for the summer was up right at 6 percent, and we’re seeing steady growth there, so it looks like all systems go for us this year.”

When the school was established, it was a two-year university, only offering junior and senior classes. UWF has changed both physically and administratively over the years. It took time to get everything aligned, but UWF finally struck gold.

“Universities, like any other institution, have a maturing factor,” she said. “UWF has matured I think to a place where we’re just on all cylinders, and I think it’s time for us to step up our game.”

The president is excited to celebrate the University of West Florida’s 50th birthday this year. She knows it is a monumental milestone for the school, and cannot wait for the next 50 years to come. She is ready to watch the university grow and strengthen not only the campus but the student body and faculty as well.

“What we’re going to do is strengthen the footprint of the university in our Northwest Florida region,” she said. “We’re doing that by leveraging our assets and our strengths. We’re calling that the Innovation Campus Network, but we’ll also build on community needs.”

The university is planning to expand over the next few years. It will grow old programs and create new ones as time progresses. Saunders even mentioned increasing the presence of the university around the Gulf Coast and specifically downtown Pensacola.

“We have a campus in Fort Walton Beach that we’re kind of busting at the seams, and so we’re looking to expand some opportunities there,” she said.

Downtown Presence
Pensacola’s downtown has evolved remarkably over the past ten years. There has been lots of private investment. The city itself invested in the Maritime Park, while the ECUA invested by moving its main street sewage plant away from downtown. And soon the downtown area will invest in the University of West Florida, creating a new campus and home for future Argos.

UWF plans to expand into the west side of town. The goal is to create a more unified campus because the current campus is scattered among the downtown area.

“Right now we’re already down there in lots of ways,” Saunders said. “Innovation Institute is over there on DeVilliers. We have our Florida Small Business Development; Office of Economic Development is down in the SunTrust Building and a few other centers. We’re sort of sprinkled around downtown. But what we’re looking for is an identifiable presence.”

She continued, “We’re calling it a campus, but maybe not in the traditional sense. We’re getting a lot of calls from folks saying, ‘Hey, maybe we can help. We have some property here that might be of interest to you.’ We want the outcome to be mutually beneficial.”

Saunders thinks the downtown campus will help grow not only the school but the community as well. That area will become a living lab for students, creating a hands-on learning environment. She hopes to one-day offer student housing downtown.

“It does us no good just to show up and fill up a program if it doesn’t benefit the community too,” she said. “We want student housing down there. I think that’s going to be key to making it work and add the dynamics that will make that downtown campus work.”

The president also thinks the presence of a downtown campus will grow the economy.

“It is really important for as many tourists as we have to say ‘hey, they’ve got a university.’ And they can walk past our labs and see young folks with backpacks moving around,” she said.

She continued, “It adds a dynamic energy to a community, an energy you just don’t see without a university or a college presence.”

There is no current start or end date for this downtown innovation, but Saunders expects the changes to be influential and beneficial for the community and well-being of the school. She has watched The University of West Florida grow exponentially over the past few years and looks forward to its future growth.

“So it looks like all systems go for us this year,” she told Inweekly. “You’re going to be seeing an Argo flag about everywhere you look.”