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Q&A with President Wilson Bradshaw

Q&A with President Wilson Bradshaw

During a day full of meetings, ceremonious big check photos and speeches, President Wilson G. Bradshaw sat down with Eagle News to talk about Hawaiian shirts, leadership and his upcoming retirement.

First of all, where do you get your Hawaiian shirts?

I get my shirts from various places, including Hawaii. My wife and I visited there, and I had an opportunity to purchase one or two there, and since that time, I’ve purchased them in places like Puerto Rico. There are folks here, faculty and staff, who have picked up on my affinity for Hawaiian shirts, and from time to time, I’ll get gifts. If I’m out and about, especially in the Caribbean or places where they have really far-out Hawaiian shirts, I’ll pick up one or two.

Do you get to travel a lot?

Not as much as I will moving on, but we travel as much as we can. The last time off we took, we went to New York City and spent about a week or so there. We like the energy of New York City. In fact, we’re on our way there next week because our Wind Orchestra is playing at Carnegie Hall. Jo Anna and I are going to travel up next Wednesday, and we’re going to have Thanksgiving on the river. We’re going to take a cruise, have dinner there, and then, the next day, we’re going to be meeting with donors in New York. And, then, the next day, we’re going to go to Carnegie Hall and really enjoy the concert by our Wind Orchestra. That’ll be neat.

That seems like one of the fun things you get to do as president — going to all the student events.

The student events are just special times, and I think, the longer one is a president, the more you realize how special those times are. Going to the different athletic events, the concerts, the plays that students put on — they are fun times, and we’ve come to appreciate them more and more during our time here at Florida Gulf Coast University.

You have a background in psychology. I was wondering how you got started in higher education.

Well, it’s really psychobiology and sort of neuroscience, and my career has been in higher education. Once I decided I was going to get my Ph.D., it was pretty clear to me I was going to be a faculty member, and that I was going to teach and do research in the area of psychobiology and neuroscience. So, I was an assistant professor and then an associate professor, and then a full professor with tenure. That was my career, and it was really fueled by my interest in wanting to know more how the brain works, how it interacts with various hormones in the body. And, that really was how I got involved with higher education. You can’t really do a lot in that area unless you have a Ph.D. And, you have to learn a lot of things, and I was excited and obviously had some facility for it. That’s how I started my career. Once I became a full professor, I had opportunities to be an assistant dean, and then a dean, and then a vice president for research, and then a provost. So, I went up the faculty ranks, and I also went up the administrative ranks.

What has been one of your favorite moments at FGCU?

There’s been a couple really special moments that stand out. Several years ago, when Priscila Navarro had her recital at Carnegie Hall, that was so special. Jo Anna and I went up there, and there were others from FGCU faculty and staff and donors who were in New York. And, they don’t know this, but just as Priscila was playing, I was just looking at their expressions, as they were so attentive — as was I — and it was a sense of pride that we had, that this was Priscila Navarro of Florida Gulf Coast University Bower School of Music and the Arts. That was a special moment for us.

I have to put in that category our run for the Sweet Sixteen. That was crazy. We were in Philadelphia to see them beat Georgetown, and we were ecstatic. Everyone in Philadelphia was an Eagle. We would walk around downtown Philadelphia and folks would be just congratulating us and wishing us well. And, of course, the second game was with San Diego State. We were excited to be in the game. We always think we can win on one level, but it was San Diego State, and when we came out of that win and came back to Southwest Florida, I was overwhelmed. I mean, all of Southwest Florida was Dunk City, not just FGCU, and not just Fort Myers. When we were in Philadelphia, the mayor of Fort Myers was there cheering us on. When I came back here, there were proclamations and resolutions from city councils and county commissions and every place I went before we went to Texas for the Sweet Sixteen; it was an amazing four or five days here. That was a very special moment as well. So, those are two really, really special events that will always in some way define my tenure here at FGCU.

What led you to the decision to retire?

As you probably know, June 30 in 2017 will be the end of my second five-year contract. So, my wife and I talked about what our futures would be. It is exceptional these days for presidents to be at one university for almost ten years. I’ve been in the system that long, and I’ve seen institutions have two, three, four presidents during my tenure. And, it’s been very exciting. I’ve been privileged to work with some of the most talented faculty and staff that exist in higher education. They are so dedicated and committed, and we all have different roles. But, we all have important roles. And, for us to be a part of FGCU, as it was growing and developing in new ways, is just special. I’ve enjoyed that. I’m in good spirits. I’m in very good health, and now, I want to do more. My grandson now is seven years old — spend a little bit more time with him. Jo Anna and I want to travel; we enjoy that. I want to fish — better than I do now because I don’t know how to do it as well. Jo Anna’s a much better fisherperson than I am. I want to learn how to boat. And we want to travel, and we just want to relax. It feels good not running away from something or being tired of something, you know, leaving because you feel it’s the right time and you’ve had your time and that you’ve been a part of a lot of the accomplishments over the ten years. It just feels like the right time.

What’s one thing that you like the most about working here?

Every fall. Every fall, coming back after the summer and seeing all of the life on this campus, especially the students. You know, we work over the summer, and things really are in a lull. But, you come back in the fall, and fall on a university campus is like spring in a regular season. Fall, everything comes to life on campus. Students are here. New students — they’re excited. They are anxious. Parents are moving them into the residence halls for the first time, and there are tears of joy. It’s just rejuvenating. Second — this may not even be second to that. But, also, what’s very exhilarating is every commencement. That is the culmination of all that we are here for. And, when I am on that stage, and I look out, and I see our students having accomplished something very significant in their lives and I see our faculty and staff who made all of that possible, that’s an exhilarating feeling for me. And, it is also rejuvenating. Because you see in a moment, in that special moment, what you’re here for — what it’s all about. Sometimes, you can get wrapped up in budget cuts and tuition increases and “how do you manage the growth with less funds?” Sometimes, you may get so consumed, you think that’s what this is about, but it’s not. So, commencement and fall really bring the reality of what we are here for to me, and I wouldn’t trade either one of those times.

What’s something that you’re excited to not have to do anymore?

Oh, cut budgets. (Laughs) Cut budgets and raise tuition. I am so pleased I will not have to be involved with those decisions because they are decisions that are difficult. I think we’ve made the right ones in very challenging economic times, but they almost always have an impact on our students and our faculty and our staff. Will there be raises? Will we be able to appropriately compensate people for the hard and effective work they do? Will we be able to keep tuition affordable so that people who are eligible and qualified to come here can come here without financial barriers being placed in front of them? Those are hard things to wrestle with. In the past, when we’ve had to decide to raise tuition and I hear … it’s hard. No one wants to raise tuition. People criticize it, and sometimes, they talk about it as if we sit in this conference room here and say “Let’s raise tuition! Yay!” and it’s not that at all. We do it as a last resort. We cut things.

One thing that we will not cut, and we will not sacrifice, is the academic enterprise. Our students and their parents, they expect a high-quality education, and they deserve it. That is what we will protect, maintain and advance at all costs. So, when we are able to keep tuition flat, as we have been able to do for the last four years — I’ll point that out — we do that. We don’t raise tuition because we want more money. If we can keep this high quality educational product affordable, we’ll do that, and we’ll do that at all costs. Now, another thing I’ll mention is, we haven’t raised housing fees or parking fees for the last three years. So, it’s not just about tuition. When we sit at this table, and we establish assumptions and when I send off my VPs off to go and develop their budgets, we all are working from the same page. The assumption is, there will be no increase in tuition and fees then go back and develop a budget that is going to protect and advance the academic enterprise without raising tuition and fees.

The reason we’ve been able to do that, especially in the last three years, is we’ve been very successful in getting performance-based funding. That funding is based on student success. How successful are we in educating students? They’re very well-defined metrics from the Board of Governors and the Board of Trustees that define that. We’ve done very well. We need to do better, to be sure. I think our four, five, six-year graduation rates, we need to do better. And, we will be doing better because we put resources into hiring more academic advisors. Identifying students earlier when they’re having academic problems, not waiting for them to fail but recognizing that some students are having problems and saying, “Hey, you need to talk to this advisor and see what we need to do.” We need to identify those seniors that we call super seniors (laughs). That sounds like a good thing, but these are seniors who would otherwise have enough credits to graduate, but they have not taken the right courses to complete the requirements in any particular major. Let’s call them in; they’ve got a special problem. Have them sit down and say, “Okay, what is this about. What is your goal? How can we help you graduate because that’s what you’re here for?” We do those things to facilitate a student’s progress through a degree program.

What’s one thing you want to achieve before you retire?

There are a couple things. You know, we’re in the throes of a $100 million campaign. It’s moving along very well. It’s very important to me that we complete that campaign successfully. In fact, I’d like for us to exceed that $100 million goal because the excellence that we are trying to develop here, the excellence that the students and their families expect and deserve, cannot be achieved with just state dollars. It can’t. And, we know that. So, this $100 million campaign, it’s not just about that figure itself, it’s about the realization that if we’re going to be the kind of first-rate, upper-tier, comprehensive university, we’re not going to do it with just tuition and fees and the state appropriation. We’re going to need that support from those outside of the university — major donors, alums giving back, companies making contributions. So, that $100 million campaign is very important to me, and I am going to spend a lot of time. I told you I gave three speeches (this week). I’m letting folks know, “We need you.” We are where we are now because of that support. You know, you look around here … We have Marieb Hall. We have Lutgert. We have Holmes. We have Whitaker. We have Kleist. We have Sugden. None of those people are alums. On other campuses, more established campuses, those would be the names of alums who have been successful and have given back to the university. The names on this campus are people who have invested in us because they recognized long term the importance of a high-quality university to the social, cultural and economic vitality of a region, and they’re all in. Now, we’re going to the next level. We need other folks to be all in to have FGCU be all that this region and beyond deserves and expects.

What’s something that you see as one of your biggest achievements?

I’m not being modest here. What I think is that everything is in the collective — these achievements. And, while I’m certainly the president and, in many ways, the icon of the university, what we’ve achieved has been because of all the dedication of everybody that I work with, not just the VPs — certainly, the VPs and the Cabinet  because they provide great leadership. But, to be a good leader, you have to have people who believe in you to lead. When I walk through this university, and I see the academic advisors and I see the people that students never see — you know,who are crunching data, who are making sure the computers work and making sure that we have a positive learning environment, the folks who serve the students at the counters — all of those folks are contributing to this phenomenon. So, if you ask me my single greatest achievement, it’s all of this and all of our achievements. I don’t say that just to be a cliché, I feel strongly. I’ve been a president here, or I will be, for ten years, but I was a president for almost eight years in Minnesota. I was a provost and academic VP. I was a vice president for research. I know almost all of the dimensions of a public university, and I know for all of those things to work and work well together, it’s the people. An easy thing for a president to do, certainly at my stage, is draw an organizational chart. I can have my boxes and the Board of Trustees here, and the VPs, I can do that. What’s more important than the organization is the people within the organization who are in those boxes. What we’ve been able to achieve is primarily because of the folks in those boxes. All of our roles are important. We do different things at different times, but for the university to ultimately succeed, it’s because all of those things, those roles, are important.

So, you would say you’re proud of being able to understand the importance of everybody working together?

Yeah, and I think any effective leader will understand that. Ultimately, with decisions that have to be made, it’s mine to make. Not only do I realize that, I accept that. When I sit with my VPs at Cabinet, and we talk about the hard issues — when I came in the door I said this, and it’s not egotistical, I said to the Cabinet, “There’s one vote. What I need from you is your best advice. You bring your experience to that, and we all invest in each other’s success. But, at the end of the day, that decision has to be made by me.” We don’t vote on things in Cabinet. We talk about things. And, I get the best from the people at the table, and I make the decision. But, my decisions are only as effective as the advice and the information that I get based on their experiences and based on my experiences.

What’s one of those decisions you’ve had to make that, looking back, you might’ve wanted to handle differently?

I will say this, there certainly have been decisions that I would have made in a different direction, knowing what I know now, and I’m not going to qualify that statement with one that would say, “Well with what I knew then, that was the right decision.” I’m not going to say that. But, I do know that, looking back, there are things that I would’ve done differently. Do you know what they call that? They call that learning. I’ve learned from those and given the opportunity or a similar situation, I would decide something

If you could give a piece of advice to your students, what would it be?

To my students … I can’t give you one sentence, because I talk in paragraphs, obviously. But, oftentimes, once we think we know things, and we have our degree, and we finish college, and we feel strongly about an issue or about a position that we have, I would tell students what has served me well over my entire career. Before I fully commit to something, before I make that final decision, I have been well served by considering the possibility that I could be wrong. Some folks say, “Well, gee whiz, does that make you take a long time?” It may make you take a little bit longer time early on. As you mature and as you learn, it doesn’t take quite that long. But, I know I have been well served by considering, with very difficult decisions, that what I’m about to do could be the wrong decision. Once I get through that, then, I make a decision. I have been very fortunate because I’ve been more right than wrong. That’s comforting, but I have been wrong. So, always consider that you could be wrong. A lot of people don’t do that. All right? Okay.

About The Author

Nina Barbero

Nina Barbero is a senior majoring in economics, and has been writing for Eagle News since her freshman year and enters her senior year as Eagle News' Managing Editor. When she is not in the newsroom, you can probably find her swimming at the beach, trying to talk her way out of overdue book fines at the library or hoping the Giants win at least one game this season.

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