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Q&A: University of Florida President Kent Fuchs & Santa Fe College President Dr. Jackson Sasser

Q&A: University of Florida President Kent Fuchs & Santa Fe College President Dr. Jackson Sasser

The Alachua County Education Compact was launched shortly after two important events – Kent Fuchs assumed the presidency of the University of Florida, and Santa Fe College received the Aspen Prize as the top community college in America.

Home Magazine Publisher Scott Costello and Senior Writer Chris met with Fuchs and Santa Fe College President Dr. Jackson Sasser to discuss how their institutions will contribute to meeting the goals of the Compact.

Santa Fe has received the Aspen recognition, and UF aspires to become a top 10 public institution. What are the key factors that play into such success?

Fuchs: It’s quite exceptional to have a university and a college in a relatively small community that share national and international aspirations. Both Santa Fe College and UF are dedicated to collaborating on our shared aspiration for excellence.

It’s very special that the community also wants to be thought of as one of the very best places to work, to raise a family and to retire in. Gainesville is a destination – a really special place.

Santa Fe College has competitors, and UF has competitors. And they’re not staying still. So, we have to work even harder going forward to be among the very best and to create a reputation where you are always considered as the best.

Sasser: I don’t know a college and a university in the country that has the symbiotic relationship that this university and this college do.

The prosperity of UF and the prosperity of Santa Fe College enable students to succeed at a higher level. But we can’t rest on our laurels. We must use our recognition as a springboard to even do even more for our students.

Our international reputation is important to me. Over the past 13 years, we have been internationalizing the college. We’re now known in embassies and by the recruiters of international students.

We also reach out to rural students coming from the farthest point of Bradford County. When they graduate from Santa Fe College and then the University of Florida, they’re competitive for jobs nationally and internationally.

We can’t let hubris take over and say, “This is done.” In our convocation this fall, the question will be: What does being No. 1 look like for tomorrow?

Although we have a top university and a top college, we have problems with K-12 education. How can you, as the leaders of higher education, help improve graduation rates and give kids more opportunities to pursue higher education, if they want to?

Fuchs: I was pleased that the signing ceremony for the Education Compact involved not just the superintendent and one political official and two university college presidents, but it included 21 people.

The simple answer is that we have a shared responsibility. And that doesn’t just mean the leaders. That means all the citizens and the parents of the K-12 students all want to achieve the goals of the compact.

One of the goals is college preparedness. That is really important to us because a disproportionately high percentage of our students went to K-12 in this county.

It’s important because our employees want good schools for their children. The No. 1 question we’re asked when we’re recruit somebody who has school-age kids is, “What are the schools like?”

Sasser: At Santa Fe College, we use data to look at where we are and where we need to be. We have an app that looks at the enrollment in the college from all the high schools in the area.

More than anything, what earned us the Aspen award was what we call “Navigating the College Experience.” Once a student applies to us, we work with them.

When they come to Santa Fe College, the advisers work with the faculty in finding out what students need. If they are having trouble in a learning lab, a tutor may be recommended.

We’re intervening. We are insinuating ourselves into the students’ lives. We’re saying, “If you want to be successful, here’s some things, like study habits, you need to work on.”

We’re going into the high schools starting this fall and working with the counselors and the faculty with that same process. That’s our contribution to the Education Compact. We’re calling it Navigating the School Experience.

Fuchs: I was pleased that the chamber of commerce took the lead in creating the Compact. When the business community steps up like that, it sends a powerful signal.

How do UF and Santa Fe College strike a balance between wanting to be the best they can be and being seen as elitist?

Fuchs: Forty-two years ago, my high school counselor at Miami Killian said, “You know you’re pretty good in math; you like physics. You need to leave the state and go to Georgia, and you need to go to Georgia Tech.”

High school counselors at Miami Killian don’t say that now. It’s important that the students of the state have a menu of options, depending on their interests, depending on their background and abilities –- all within the state.

Today, UF has become really selective, and many excellent students aren’t admitted. We’re working to address it, partly through what we call alternative pathways into the university.

One pathway is to start the traditional way. Another pathway is you come to Gainesville, but you start at Santa Fe College. That’s proven to be a great pathway. One of our new trustees, Anita Zucker, took that pathway.

In the end, I don’t describe our approach in Florida as being elitist. It’s a matter of having different colleges and universities with different missions. And we don’t want any citizen, any high school graduating student to say that, “I want to go to a really selective university; therefore, I’ve got to go to some other state to do that.”

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The University of Florida should serve the role of being a highly selective option in the state. That means I get a lot of letters from alumni saying, “How come my child or my grandchild didn’t get in?”

Sasser: We have an elite university, and we have a college where students do the work to become “UF ready.” It’s a gift to have both in the same town.

We are not competing. When UF prospers, Santa Fe College prospers.

It seems like the relationship between the two of you is a genuine respect and friendship. How is it that the leaders of two great institutions have so easily been able to work together?

Fuchs: First, everywhere I go, he’s there. I can’t avoid him. Whether it’s at the Chamber of Commerce or at a prayer breakfast, he’s everywhere. Jackson is so engaged in this community, and therefore there’s incredible visibility for the college.

Second, I’m the new kid on the block. He has welcomed me into the community, and he has been one of my mentors, helping me understand the local leaders and how we are organized and the roles of our two institutions.

Third, he and his wife are warm, welcoming people. I’ve got my grandchild, and he’s got his grandchildren. We’ve made a point that we do get together –- it’s not just business.

Sasser: We do have common backgrounds based on common faith guiding our lives. That’s a common core that you can’t underestimate. We both smiled when we met each other at a breakfast for the governor. It was a friendship, without us saying anything. Some people you connect with at a higher level immediately. That occurred here, and it’s easy.

What are some concrete ways to reach the goals of the Education Compact?

Sasser: My thought is that there is serious work to be done. We’re on a path. We’ve got the right people, and that matters.

The new superintendent is an aspirational leader; we’ve got a shot at reaching the goals of the Compact.

Fuchs: The Compact captures the idea of shared aspirations in the K-12 area. The entire community has shared aspirations for the quality of this place, its image in the outside world and how we want it to be even stronger in the future.

At UF, we are part of a shift in the way education is occurring in many disciplines. We’re understanding that students are more motivated and they learn more effectively when they can be outside of the classroom and engaged in the community.

The students we see today are so service-minded and want to be engaged with society and not just be in a class. As students become more engaged in the community, they can help the community achieve the goals of the Compact.

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