(From left to right) Angelo Baldado, President Dale Whittaker, Forrest McClellan and Jaycee Cureton. Photo courtesy of Angelo Baldado.

President Dale Whittaker spent part of his first day on the job speaking to students at a “Coffee and Conversation” event, discussing their expectations and hopes for the university’s direction under his leadership as UCF’s fifth president.

The event, hosted Monday morning in the Student Union, offered students free coffee courtesy of Cafe Bustelo as well as the opportunity to make conversation with President Whittaker, who spent 45 minutes speaking to several groups of students in attendance.

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President Whittaker found inspiration in listening to students express their dreams for their futures. “One of the things I love is to hear people’s stories,” Whittaker said, “because everyone is bringing something powerful and unique with them to this experience.”

Avery Royston, a LEAD Scholar Peer Mentor and RA, said her conversation with President Whittaker was enjoyable. “He built on the comments others made instead of just waiting to share his next thought,” Royston said. “He’s got such an engineer’s brain.”

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While President Whittaker did speak about his own priorities for UCF, his focus was primarily on the students he spoke with.

“Excellence was used quite a bit. ‘We want an excellent degree and an excellent experience,’ ” Whittaker said of the input he received. “Something I’m completely committed to.”

One of President Whittaker’s largest challenges is leading UCF to become a Preeminent State Research University, a status that grants additional state funding to the university’s graduate programs. Florida State University, the University of Florida, and University of South Florida are also Preeminent State Research Universities.

Three years ago, UCF had only reached two of the 11 criteria necessary to receive preeminent status. As of the 2017-2018 school year, UCF had knocked out seven — and President Whittaker believes the number will be higher next year.

“We just closed the research year and we closed it with $183 million in awards, which is by many millions — tens of millions — higher than we’ve ever done in the past,” Whittaker said. “So we are moving rapidly toward those other goals.”

President Whittaker is also focusing on building the Downtown Campus and the Academic Health Science Center, continuing to raise the university’s athletic profile, and sharing UCF’s excellence with everyone, “especially beyond the borders of Florida.”

Some expressed concern about President Whittaker’s ability to both continue former president John C. Hitt’s legacy and establish his own, but Whittaker said he’s planning to stay here long-term to continue UCF’s mission of excellence.

“President Hitt and I are very different people, so I will bring my own perspectives, I’ll bring my own energy, I’ll bring my own interests to the job,” Whittaker said. “And I think what you’re going to see is the best of two worlds.”