President Series: From Dunk City to world impact, the rise of Florida Gulf Coast University

The retiring Mike Martin and his strong team at FGCU have helped it become an international powerhouse.

Established 25 years ago on the serene southwest coast of the Sunshine State, where white sand beaches mix with mostly upscale communities, Florida Gulf Coast University has nestled into its tranquil former swampland nicely. Its campus feels more small-town than midsize, even for an institution with 16,000 students.

Yet despite its growth, it needed that signature moment, something that would get it noticed beyond Florida. And that came during a tidal wave of slam dunks and victories in 2013 when its men’s basketball team became Cinderella darlings as a No. 15 seed and reached the Sweet 16. Affectionately known as Dunk City, Florida Gulf Coast U. opened the eyes of millions to the fun, splashy and diverse group of students and fans from Fort Myers.

“It still is celebrated continually here, and it put us on the map. There is no question,” says President Mark Martin, who wasn’t at FGCU at the time but was keen to talk about its influence. “It suddenly gave us this great burst of publicity that caused people to look a little deeper.”

The Eagles team has not reached that pinnacle again—the women made it into Round 2 this year—but the university itself has managed to earn some new press, soaring up other charts such as the recent World University with Real Impact rankings, where it ranked No. 47 of the most innovative institutions and received Top 20 nods for Ethical Value (14), Crisis Management (3), Best Prepared for the Fourth Industrial Revolution (14) and Social Mobility and Openness (18).

FGCU, amid powerhouses in its own state such as the University of Florida, Florida State and the University of Central Florida, indeed has landed on the map and gotten past that magical moment. Or has it?

“I have a group of guys from around the country that for more than 30 years has gotten together at least once a year to play golf and to lie to each other about our careers,” Martin says. “A couple of years ago, we played in Minnesota, and I brought everybody an FGCU cap. One of the guys called me the next Tuesday to say he had been in the Home Depot in Woodbury, Minnesota, with his cap on, and someone yelled ‘Dunk City’ at him. I said if we’re known in the Home Depot in Woodbury, Minnesota, well then, we’re doing OK.”

To learn more about the rise of FGCU and its future, University Business sat down with the departing Martin, who plans to retire in style in December, toggling between Dunk City and Minnesota:

How has Florida Gulf Coast arrived at this moment, soaring academically and becoming an internationally recognizable name?

We live in a very wealthy community of highly successful international business people that have a real interest in FGCU being a global connection and a great comprehensive, regional university. And very early members of our faculty came in with a commitment to plant a good university here—what at the time was a swamp—and put it on the map. I’ve only been here a little over five years. I have a hard time understanding what it must have been like, but I’m impressed with their spirit to not only create an institution that can serve local students but give those students a sense of pride in where they got their degrees.

Have you been surprised by the rise of the institution in such a short time and in the rankings on world impact?

I’m not surprised that we’ve been able to establish recognition. I’ve been surprised at how quickly it’s come and how broad it has been. We made it one of our five pillars of our strategic plan five years ago: to be more globally recognizable and connected. I made it clear to the legislature and others that if you fund us, here’s where we’re going to invest. We’re not a wealthy institution, but we’ve been able to increase our state appropriation 58% in five years. We’ve been maybe more lucky than good. We may have hit this mark at exactly the right time. But we did hit it.

Florida Gulf Coast is in a highly competitive market for state universities and even privates. How has the university managed to find success against those top-tier institutions?

If we tried to go head-to-head with 11 sister institutions in the state, including UF, FSU and the University of South Florida, we were likely to be frustrated. So we carved out a few niches we thought could be to our comparative advantage. One is in water, to be all things water, because we live in the most interesting laboratory for which we can become a global education and research center. The continual mantra was, what can we do to separate ourselves from our sister institutions, so we don’t have to be always compared to much longer established and much larger universities?

What kind of students is FGCU attracting, and what is it looking to attract in the future?

We’re going to try to be a value-added institution for students, particularly from Southwest Florida, but not exclusively, who have the capability and the desire to get a degree, but may come with a few less advantages, whether they come from Pell-eligible families or from poor rural high schools. Our student body is over half first-gen. Well over 60% work at least part-time to afford to come here. The students by and large do not view their education as an entitlement. They view it as a privilege. They work hard at it. One of the things I’ve enjoyed in this twilight of my career is, I get to work about 7:30, catch a cup of coffee and sit behind the Student Union. And people can come by and tell me whatever is on their mind. The stories, anecdotes, advice and complaints are continually revealing to me about the nature of the students we have. We’re fairly local and certainly Florida, but we’re increasingly international. We’ve got a couple of majors that really bring students in, particularly Professional Golf Management and Resort and Hospitality Management. So it’s given us a chance to have a fairly interesting, diverse student population.

Do you foresee FGCU growing at all in the next decade or so?

The natural capability of campus can take us close to 20,000, but not beyond. If we get beyond that, we’ll see the stress on the environment. If I had a conversation today with [former president Roy McTarnaghan], I’d say perhaps we should have added at least one more story to every building.

What are you most proud of about FGCU?

The people who have moved on to leadership roles that I’ve had some impact on touching their lives. I’m proud of the relationships I’ve been able to create over 50 years with students I’ve interacted with.… We also have centralized much more student support to do better advising and better financial aid planning. We’ve gone to a distributed model with respect to academics. We’ve empowered the deans and moved money to the colleges. We’ve put the authority closer to the ground.

What about the future there?

I’ve worked hard to persuade people that we need to think more seriously about the term comprehensive in our title comprehensive regional university. We need to up the ante on scholarship and research without giving up our commitment to students. And that led to the launching of our Water School (and new $15 million building). An institution this size can probably afford two large, cross-disciplinary institutes that have the following characteristics: They solve local problems, and they engage broadly the campus community but are significant enough to give us national recognition. Water was our first big move. The next one is likely to be what we’re referring to as Positive Aging. We live in one of the oldest neighborhoods in the world. We ought to take advantage of the laboratory we’re in. So as I have joined the senior citizen pack, I’m a victim of my own plan.

More from UB: The President Series

Chris Burt
Chris Burt
Chris is a reporter and associate editor for University Business and District Administration magazines, covering the entirety of higher education and K-12 schools. Prior to coming to LRP, Chris had a distinguished career as a multifaceted editor, designer and reporter for some of the top newspapers and media outlets in the country, including the Palm Beach Post, Sun-Sentinel, Albany Times-Union and The Boston Globe. He is a graduate of Northeastern University.

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