Florida Polytechnic University will soon add another “first” to the many since it opened in 2014 — its first search for a new president.
Randy Avent, 64, who has led the Lakeland-based university since its founding, announced Monday that he will step down at the end of the 2023-34 academic year. He said he plans to take a “brief sabbatical” and then return as a faculty member.
“I’m excited to see what the future holds for Florida Poly. We are growing both physically and academically with big plans to become one of the nation’s most respected providers of workforce-ready, high-demand STEM graduates,” Avent said.
Florida Poly Board of Trustees Chair Cliff Otto praised Avent’s work as president, and said he was the right leader to tackle the difficult task of establishing a public STEM university from the ground up.
“It has been a great pleasure working closely with Dr. Avent since the very first days of the University. He was the perfect person to lead a brand-new institution like Florida Poly and take it to the solid ground it stands on today,” Otto said.
Although Florida Poly is the youngest of the state’s 12 public universities, Avent is currently the system’s longest-serving president. The next-longest are Martha Saunders, who has led the University of West Florida since Jan. 1, 2017, and Larry Robinson, who has led Florida A&M University since Nov. 30, 2017.
Florida’s public universities in flux
There has been substantial turnover at the top of Florida’s public university system over the past two years, with more than half of its universities seating new presidents:
- Aysegul Timur became the fifth president of Florida Gulf Coast University on June 22, 2023.
- Former U.S. Sen. Ben Sasse became the 13th president of the University of Florida on Feb. 6, 2023.
- Kenneth Jessell became the sixth president of Florida International University on Nov. 9, 2022.
- Moez Limayem became the seventh president of the University of North Florida on Aug. 1, 2022
- Rhea Law became the eighth president of the University of South Florida on March 30, 2022.
- Richard McCullough became the 16th president of Florida State University on Aug. 16, 2021.
Two other universities are being led by interim presidents:
- New College of Florida has been searching for a new leader since Jan. 31, when its recently overhauled board of trustees voted to oust President Patricia Okker and install former state Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran as interim president. Okker had only held the post since July 1, 2021.
- The Florida Board of Governors suspended the search for a new president at Florida Atlantic University on July 7, days after a committee narrowed the list of finalists for the job to three. The board raised concerns about “anomalies” related to a straw poll and questions about the candidates’ gender identities. Critics allege the move was because Rep. Randy Fine, a Republican lawmaker from Palm Bay and ally of Gov. Ron DeSantis, was not among the contenders.
Florida Poly has not yet announced the process by which it will select Avent’s replacement, but under a new law signed by DeSantis in March 2022, the search will be much less transparent than the first time around.
The measure — which has drawn criticism from First Amendment advocates and a national higher education association — created a public records exemption that shields candidate identities until the very final stages of a search.
Decade of dramatic growth
During Avent’s tenure, Florida Poly’s reputation, student enrollment and campus infrastructure have all grown.
Florida Poly was ranked the No. 1 public college in the region by U.S. News & World Report in September for the second consecutive year.
At a time when fewer students are enrolling in colleges and universities, Florida Poly’s applications and enrollments have surged every year — even during the COVID-19 pandemic. Last year, applications increased 31% over 2021 and 101% over 2019.
Its enrollment has grown from an initial cohort of 554 students to its most recent count of 1,543 undergraduates and 63 graduate students. Incoming students in 2022 had an average SAT score of 1355 and average ACT score of 30. In addition, 84% were Bright Futures scholarship winners.
The university’s academic offerings have expanded over the past decade from six undergraduate degree programs to 10, and from two graduate degree programs to four. It was accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges in 2017 and four of its degree programs earned ABET accreditation in 2019.
Structurally, the university has added an 85,000-square-foot academic building for applied research, partnered with a private builder to create two residence halls for students and is currently constructing a third $42 million dorm it will own. The university expects to break ground on a new engineering building in a few months.
It also has created partnerships with public and private entities including the Florida Department of Transportation, Saddle Creek Logistics and International Flavors & Fragrances.
However, it hasn’t been entirely smooth sailing for the fledgling university.
Existential threats to independence
From the very beginning, Florida Poly’s identity as an independent university has been somewhat fragile.
The school began in 1988 as a satellite of the University of South Florida and initially shared its grounds with the Lakeland campus of Polk State College. In 2008, local business owners secured funding for a separate campus and purchased land near Interstate 4.
Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava was selected in 2009 to design the campus’ striking first building. However, throughout the planning and early construction, it was known as USF Polytechnic. In 2011, the Florida Board of Governors outlined a multi-year plan that would have allowed the school to earn its independence upon meeting certain milestones.
Unhappy with the pace and conditions, state Sen. J.D. Alexander (R-Lake Wales) introduced a budget bill granting immediate independence. The measure was signed by then-Gov. Rick Scott in April 2012, making Florida Polytechnic the state’s 12th public university.
Less than a decade later, its independence was threatened again.
House Higher Education Appropriations Committee Chairman Randy Fine – the DeSantis ally whose name has been floated for the FAU presidency – introduced a bill in the 2020 legislative session that would have forced Florida Poly and New College to merge with the University of Florida, stripping both institutions of their independent accreditation and transferring their assets to UF.
Avent traveled to Tallahassee and rallied local lawmakers to oppose the bill, which failed to advance to a floor vote after passing two committees. But lawmakers at the time said they planned to resurrect the idea again.
DeSantis also floated the idea of reuniting Florida Poly with USF.
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