President’s corner: How John Nicklow keeps ‘Florida’s STEM University’ nimble in changing times

As confident as the president is in the mission of Florida's premiere STEM school, he understands how nimble it must be as it approaches a changing higher education and workforce landscape.

John Nicklow felt heavy when he learned about the recent bridge collapse in Baltimore. But as an academic leader in civil engineering and the president of Florida Tech Institute of Technology, the wreckage piqued his interest. Could this have been prevented? Was the bridge’s construction material sound at the time of the cargo ship collision?

“When you drive across a bridge in the morning, you want it to have been designed by an engineer who has experience in hands-on work with concrete and steel,” he says.

Nicklow mused on the pros and cons of meeting students where they are via emerging online learning modalities versus traditional in-person methods. In his perspective, the two are merging. The line between online and in-person learning has blurred, and Nicklow believes this is the step in the right direction to match the pace of busy students.

Innovative programming modalities represent the tip of the iceberg for what Nicklow is looking to implement after Florida Tech enrolled its largest first-year enrollment class this past fall, exceeding 1,000 students since the institution opened in 1958. As confident as the president is in the mission of Florida’s premiere STEM school, he understands how nimble it must be as it approaches a changing higher education and workforce landscape.

More from UB: The ‘now’ of education: Faculty, admins talk maximizing AI and building guardrails

Moving beyond the strategic plan

Nicklow stepped into Florida Tech in July 2023 following a successful eight-year run at the University of New Orleans. As most presidents do in their first year at an institution, he’s crafting its strategic plan. However, the way he moves about creating it may differ from most. Time and time again, Nicklow has seen meticulously created strategic plans collect dust on a shelf, neglected by the very people who painstakingly crafted them. The world is simply moving too fast to stay bound to old ideas.

Enter the “action plan,” Nicklow’s evolution of the old tried objective-based milestone. It’s designed to be updated and revised regularly to reflect the needs of an evolving higher-education institution. It’s alive and beckons for reinvention as the world around it changes.

“A strategic plan is somewhat useless today,” Nicklow says. “Our industry partners are changing rapidly, so our plan better as well.”

Higher education experienced a mightily disruptive force break onto the scene in November 2022 through generative AI. Nicklow credits this action plan’s “living” nature to helping the institution quickly scale up its embrace of AI. Florida Tech’s AI task force has evolved from focusing solely on academic integrity to exploring how the technology can be infused into non-STEM curricula.

“I put it like this when talking to faculty: Our students aren’t slow to pick it up. How are we reacting to it?” he says. “It can’t be by setting up a barrier and resisting the movement.”

How the president helps separate Florida Tech from the competition

Endearingly regarded as Florida’s STEM university, Florida Tech faces competition from the state’s flagship, the University of Florida, and other larger institutions offering its own quality skills-based career pathways. However, Nicklow doesn’t need too much reassurance on what sets Florida Tech apart from the rest. Last week, while sitting on his patio with family, he looked up and saw a rocket shoot through Florida’s luscious blue skies above the Atlantic. The next day, he walked to the beach.

Located on the “Space Coast,” students neighbor Kennedy Space Center, SpaceX, Lockheed Martin, Embraer, Blue Origin and the United Launch Alliance. With close proximity to an exciting industry and in one of the top-ranked places to live by the beach, students are naturally drawn in.

“The university is in a very appealing location for students and families,” he says. “We’re such an asset here, and with a tremendous influx of industry, we are the talent pipeline.”

Florida Tech ensures its marketing teams take advantage of these qualities through multimedia campaigns across TV, print and social media platforms.

Alcino Donadel
Alcino Donadel
Alcino Donadel is a UB staff writer and first-generation journalism graduate from the University of Florida. His beats have ranged from Gainesville's city development, music scene and regional little league sports divisions. He has triple citizenship from the U.S., Ecuador and Brazil.

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