FIT Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer

It was an institution birthed to meet the academic needs of those who were advancing mankind into the frontiers of space at Cape Canaveral. From its inauspicious beginnings in 1958, Florida Institute of Technology (FIT) has grown into one of the most respected institutions of its kind in the world. Soon Dr. T. Dwayne McCay, an engineer and science pioneer himself, will be helping write the next chapter in the university’s development, as FIT President Anthony Catanese retires in 2016 and he takes the helm. 

On the Rewards of Academic Research

If you really love research, the kind of research that affords you the opportunity to be as creative as you would like to be, the university is the ideal setting. When doing research for the government or with private enterprise, there is someone with a very clear expectation, which may not be your expectation. In academia, you can set your own expectations and achieve goals that you otherwise might never have had the chance to achieve. 

There is a freedom in academia and therefore an opportunity for discovery that you don’t find in other sectors of the job market. When working for government contractors, we were after very specific solutions to very specific problems. Though it was extremely rewarding work, because you were solving very challenging problems, it wasn’t necessarily the problem you would choose to work on.

Getting into management was not something I anticipated, in fact I used to tell my graduate students to avoid managerial positions until they drag you in. I was a happy researcher with some 18 patents of which five or six had been commercialized. But to support my research colleagues, I entered the race for the vice presidency at the University of Tennessee. Much to my shock and theirs, I was selected. 

Actually, I was never one who master planned my career. I went from one opportunity to another. The tools of my trade were engineering and analysis. I was just having fun and taking advantage of the challenges that presented themselves to me.

The Journey to FIT

To bring together the right people to address a problem was always what I wanted to do in management. It was an opportunity to create a synergy that facilitated very creative outcomes, which otherwise you couldn’t have achieved. Also, the position afforded the chance to make recommendations and suggest approaches that as an individual researcher, you don’t have the opportunity to do.

Over time, my positions were elevated at UT and the presidency at FIT opened and I applied, but again, I wasn’t very serious about my chances. Then to everyone’s surprise, including the headhunter, I was the No. 2 candidate. I didn’t meet Dr. Catanese at that time, but I fell in love with the school. When it was time to hire a provost, Tony (Dr. Anthony Catanese) asked me to apply, which I did and was offered the job.

One of the things I found intriguing was that the faculty at FIT was very likeminded. I was also surprised when I reviewed the faculty resumes and realized that almost 20 percent of the faculty could only be described as world-class; they could be at any institution, anywhere. All the faculty were good, but these were exceptional – yet at that time, we didn’t have the infrastructure to support their research efforts. That is one of the components we have added and one that I want to aggressively pursue in the future.

Also, the students when I first visited were so gracious and so engaged. It was so cool. In addition, we live in a world with an international economy, therefore to have a school with nearly one third of our campus students being international gives us a unique position. One of my mentors said, “To make a great university, like making a great country, you bring the best minds together from all over the world.” These different cultures and perspectives give new and unique approaches.

The Legacy and Future of FIT

Each of FIT’s leaders have built on the achievement of their predecessor. One of Dr. Catanese’s legacies is that he turned FIT into one of the larger private engineering universities in the country, with an international reputation. He has also been so successful at integrating FIT into this local community; I’ve never seen anything like that anywhere. We are part of the fabric of Brevard County and are rewarded nationally for those efforts.

Dr. Catanese has had a great personal impact on me as well. I am a practical engineer who had to work real problems that impacted industry, the military, and more. It isn’t that he isn’t practical, but he doesn’t make any small plans. I set expectations I know we can reach, but he set expectations no one can reach; I’ve learned to think much bigger than I would have otherwise from him.

As we look to the future, I realize we are currently a really good university. In the next 10 years, we can be recognized, by all our peers, as a great university. Each year we will ratchet up our standards, from admission standards to the research orientation of our faculty. Maybe we won’t actually be that much better than we are now, though I’m sure we will, but everyone will certainly know how great we are.