Prior to stepping into the role as president of Florida Institute of Technology, Dr. T. Dwayne McCay had a prestigious career as a leading research scientist with over 18 patents – nearly a third of which have been commercialized. At one point, he served as vice president at the University of Tennessee, where he was responsible in obtaining more directed funding. From 2003 to 2016, he was provost and chief academic officer at Florida Tech before taking the helm as president in 2016. Under his leadership, the university’s international reputation for producing some of the most sought-after and highly-paid graduates in the nation has soared, along with its focus on cutting-edge research.
EW: Florida Tech was initially shaped by the environment it was formed in, the Space Coast in the late 50’s and 60’s. Now, how do you see Florida Tech shaping and influencing that same environment?
DM: More than anything else, we are a source of talent that is providing much of the strength to the technology-based firms that are flourishing in this area and we have been doing that for some time. When you talk to CEO’s and HR executives in the 25 plus companies in close proximity to us, they love to hire our graduates, which translates to those graduates being some of the highest paid in the Southeast. The only complaint I hear from them is that we don’t graduate enough talent, but we’re working on that. The research we do here on satellites, or the Indian River Lagoon is all remarkable, but it is overshadowed by the qualified, career-ready talent we are producing.
EW: It has been observed that research universities are always an economic driver and that Silicon Valley would not exist without Stanford. How do you see Florida Tech in that sense?
DW: That is a scenario that has been playing out for some time, thankfully. I have visited 113 countries and I posed the question, “If you were going to choose a place to put an aerospace-oriented university, where would it be?” Without exception they say, “The Space Coast of Florida.” That was part of Dr. Keuper’s foresight when he founded Florida Tech, that the future of the area would be driven by highly educated talent.
EW: One observation I have heard in this regard is that we don’t have enough engineers and Florida Tech attracts the cream of foreign students, but they can’t matriculate into careers here because of the defense orientation of our local companies?
DW: It is true, they would like to hire them, but federal controls prevent them from doing so. However, graduates who move into the private sector outside the defense industry have risen to become chief scientist or chief technical officer.
EW: One of your goals when you became president, which reflected your background and passion, was to elevate Florida Tech as a leading research institution. How is the school doing in that regard?
DW: It has been more challeng- ing than I initially thought. Our history was as a great teaching institution and to mold us into a research-oriented university is like turning a big ship…inertia is an amazing thing. One initiative that I pushed as provost without success, but with success as president, is tenure. By advertis- ing for a position that is a tenure track, I get five times as many highly-qualified applicants. Tom Folliard, one of our famous graduates who helped build CarMax, whose brother is a tenured professor at the University of Texas, wanted to come here, but we didn’t offer tenure [at that time]. Without a tenured system, we were swimming upstream. Now, it is getting easier and easier to recruit. We have 20 faculty mem- bers who are recognized around the world as being leaders in their field, out of some 350. That is a huge number and most of that progress has been made in the last 15 years.
EW: It must be an extremely competitive environment?
DM: We had one of the world’s leading experts in cybersecurity, who left and became the chief technology officer at Microsoft. How do we compete with that compensation package? But now we have the Harris Institute for Assured Information, along with other industry leaders, and we have taken cybersecurity from being a sideline to being one of our core strengths that continues to grow.
EW: Biological sciences, including marine sciences, also is emerging as a strong field at the university.
DM: It is always about people and talent. Most of the community doesn’t know that we bring in close to 100 pre-med students a year. Of the ones who graduate in that track, an astonishing 82 percent get into medical school. This track record is leading to the location of a medical school on our campus in 2024. It is a program that has grown out of our biology department and the efforts of Julia Grimwade, who leads that program.
EW: How have you been able to manage the pandemic?
DM: There are only two private schools in the country that didn’t suffer declining enrollments through the pandemic, ours and a school up in Pennsylvania. We made decisions very early, we developed a strategic plan and we stuck to it. We communicated with parents, got their support and our enrollment actually grew. This spring we had the largest undergraduate enrollment in our history. There were many tough decisions, like canceling our public commencement exercises, [which] you know isn’t popular. But we did it and within a few weeks [and eventually] 70 percent of the colleges in Florida went to virtual graduations. These decisions, I think, go back to my background in launching missiles. You do everything to make sure everything is ready and then you push the button.
EW: What do you think Florida Tech will look like in 10 years?
DM: I call it “Back to the Future.” We will look like we did 30 years ago, where we were producing leading-edge graduates that industry competes for and re- search that was second to none, only we will be doing it better and on a larger scale.