By the time Dr. Wilson Bradshaw reads this story, he’ll probably be on his way to a new home in St. Augustine.
Florida Gulf Coast University’s top administrator will clock out for the final time on Friday, after nearly 10 years at the helm as university president.
Sitting in the conference room adjacent to his office sits a litany of FGCU memorabilia. A golden shovel commemorates the groundbreaking on the school’s Fort Myers camps in 1995. Awards and plaques lines the walls, along with a litany of news clippings about great moments in the school’s history.
But perhaps the most striking images were posters on a pair of easels. One showed an aerial view of the FGCU campus in 2006. The other from 2012. It was reminiscent of seeing a pair of family photos, watching how quickly things change and grow.
“Even that one’s quite out of date,” Bradshaw said. “When I came here in 2007, there was no Lutgert Hall. There was no Holmes Hall. South Village, where the Residences are was just flatland. I can’t say enough about the community that stepped up and made significant contributions that allowed us to do these things.”
He left out Sugden Hall, Marieb Hall, a solar farm, expansion of the Student Union, and a soon to be completed expansion of athletic facilities at Alico Arena. To be fair, it’s not like it was easy to remember everything when for several years it seemed that new buildings seems to just appear out of thin air.
“It’s our 20th anniversary, one of our taglines is ‘it started with land and a grand plan.’ I have had the great fortune to participate and actualize that plan along with the very gifted people I have worked with. I don’t think I’ll take it all in until I’m out of the position and able to take a deep breath.”
When Bradshaw arrived at FGCU after seven years at Metropolitan State University in Minnesota, he stepped into a school which was still trying to take root and find its identity. In those 10 years, the student population has grown from 9,400 to nearly 15,000 students, the school has added 15 more degree programs including its first doctoral offerings, more than doubled the number of students living on campus, sent its operation budget go up $100 million and its endowment nearly double to $83 million.
All of this happened while the nation slogged through one of the worst recessions in generations.
“We had to manage, because our state budgets were being cut, at least operating budgets. We came through that successfully, we did not survive we continued to thrive, albeit at a slower level but it was not Armageddon for us,” Bradshaw said. “The people I work with here are very smart people. We’re going into our fifth year now not having raised tuition, or fees, because the focus is on affordability and quality. I’m a native Floridian, I was educated in this public system so it is something I take to heart. It is special to be here, making those educational opportunities for younger folks like I used to be.”
Bradshaw was born in Sanford, and grew up in West Palm Beach. The time Bradshaw grew up in has been compared to that of today, as the political climate is tense and divisive, and that powder keg has often gone off on college campuses around the country. Last year, students took to the campus in protest after racially charged language was scrawled onto whiteboards, and white supremacist flyers were posted around campus.
“I grew up in the Civil Rights era. I’ve seen a lot of things, a lot of graffiti that makes a lot of the things we see here, well it doesn’t make it stand out,” Bradshaw said. “By the time it happened here on this campus, it had momentum all around the country. I was very disappointed, but not surprised.”
Still, he sees ideological conversations as constructive – if people let them be.
“I feel very strongly that on this campus, without the clichés of marketplace of ideas and those kind of things, I think this is a place where you have to learn how to listen to opposing views in a civil and respectful manner.”
“Some of that stuff offends me, but it’s part of the price of freedom. It’s part of the price of democracy, and that’s why I have faith in this democracy. I think it does require an educated populace if we’re going to be strong and we’re going to be sustainable, we’re going to need more education not less. And that won’t result in everyone thinking the same way.”
While politics can be divisive, what’s been unifying, and a big boon to the university in the last decade has been the athletics programs. Bradshaw has been an avid and vocal fan of FGCU athletics, attending every event he can. In some cases, he’s been seen sneaking down into the Dirty Birds – the name of the student section at Eagles basketball games.
“I’ve seen a lot of tremendous success in athletics, and it contributes certainly to visibility, and spirit,” Bradshaw said. “I believe that if there are activities, if there are programs that allows students to personalize their experience, some may find it to be athletics, some may find it to be student government, it makes that educational experience more important to that individual student. Athletics is one of those things, and of course it rallies the community.”
Since moving to Division I in 2007, and becoming full members in 2011, every team sport save volleyball – they’ll get here, Bradshaw says – has made it to their NCAA tournament. Baseball finally broke through this year, softball got the program’s first NCAA postseason win in 2012. Both men’s and women’s soccer have been tournament mainstays, with the women appearing in five of six, and then men in four, including advancing to the second round for the first time last year. The women’s basketball team has been in four NCAA tournaments.
But of course, no conversation about FGCU can be had without mentioning “Dunk City.” Headlines from the men’s basketball program’s historic run to the Sweet Sixteen as the first, and still only, No. 15 seed to get that far are all over the conference room.
“I remember going to Philadelphia when we got to the NCAA Tournament,” Bradshaw said. “We got to Philadelphia just happy to be in Philadelphia. Playing Georgetown, having our fingers crossed. That was cool.”
It would be easy to think that man saying he’s retiring would be doing exactly that. After all, that new home in St. Augustine is waiting, Bradshaw said he plans to spend more time fishing.
But students may be seeing Professor Bradshaw soon. As part of the president’s contract, Bradshaw has a teaching position waiting for him, after a sabbatical of course.
“We’re still fleshing out what those courses will be,” he said. “And I’ll spend part of my sabbatical boning up so I can catch up on some of those disciplines.”
All told, he says it’s a career he’s very proud of. Decades in academia, including 17 years as a university president, and another five as a provost.
“I didn’t go to graduate school aspiring to be a university president at all, or even be a part of administration at all. Those things kind of happened. I’ve had a rich and rewarding career. It’s allowed me to travel and do research and teach at some of the finest institutions in this country. That’s been very, very good. It’s been rewarding at each stage, as a faculty member and a researcher, and as I moved up the administrative rank.”
Still, retirement is retirement. And as trite as it may be, talk of anyone retiring after a long career is one that often leads to the idea of an individual’s legacy. But Bradshaw isn’t having it.
“I’m certainly not going to write it,” he says, telling a story about his time at Florida Atlantic University where he mentored a student. That student earned his law degree, and that student, David Brennen, is now Dean of the University of Kentucky College of Law.
“In my mind, my legacy will be borne out by the 15,000 graduates who got their diploma here. My legacy will be written by them, by what they do in making their communities and families better.”
© 2017 Naples Herald. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.