The University of Central Florida, or UCF, is an American metropolitan public research university in Orlando, Florida. It is the largest university in the United States by undergraduate enrollment, as well as the largest by total enrollment.
Founded in 1963 by the Florida Legislature, UCF opened in 1968 as Florida Technological University, with the mission of providing personnel to support the growing U.S. space program at the Kennedy Space Center and Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on Florida’s Space Coast. As the academic scope expanded beyond its original focus on engineering and technology, “Florida Tech” was renamed The University of Central Florida in 1978. UCF’s space roots continue as the university currently leads the NASA Florida Space Grant Consortium. While initial enrollment was only 1,948 students, enrollment today amounts to some 60,821 students from 140 countries and all 50 states and Washington, D.C.
The majority of the student population is located on the university’s main campus just 13 miles (21 km) east-northeast of downtown Orlando, and 55 miles (89 km) southwest of Daytona Beach. The university offers over 200 degrees through thirteen colleges and twelve satellite campuses in Central Florida. Since its founding, UCF has awarded more than 290,000 degrees, including 55,000 graduate and professional degrees, to over 250,000 alumni worldwide.
UCF is a space-grant university, and has made significant research contributions to engineering, optics, simulation, digital media, business administration, education, hospitality management, and the arts. Its official colors are black and gold, and the university logo is a Pegasus, which “symbolizes the university’s vision of limitless possibilities” The university’s intercollegiate sports teams, commonly known as the “UCF Knights” and represented by mascot Knightro, compete in NCAA Division I and the American Athletic Conference.
Following President John F. Kennedy’s September 1962 speech, in which he described his goal of accomplishing a manned space flight to the moon by the end of the decade, the space program grew in importance and scope in Central Florida because of its proximity to Cape Canaveral. Prominent residents and local leaders began lobbying the Florida State Legislature to increase access to higher education on the Space Coast. With the help of former State Senate President William A. Shands and Senator Beth Johnson, the legislature passed and Governor Farris Bryant signed into law Senate Bill No. 125 on June 10, 1963, which authorized the Florida Board of Regents to create a new state university in East Central Florida. The university was founded as a non-segregated and coeducational university, with the mission of educating students for promising space-age careers in engineering and other technological professions.
On January 24, 1964, the Board of Regents purchased 1,000 acres (4.0 km2) of remote forest and pasture land along Alafaya Trail (SR 434) in northeast Orlando at the cost of $500,000 as the site of the new university. Local residents donated another 227 acres (0.92 km2), and raised more than $1 million in funds to secure the land acquisition. In December 1965, the Board of Regents appointed Charles Millican the first president of the new university. Millican with the consultation of a citizen advisory group, chose the name Florida Technological University, as well as co-designed the school’s distinctive “Pegasus” seal. Millican is also responsible for the university’s slogan – “Reach for the Stars” – and for the two key principles of the school, “accent on excellence” and “accent on the individual.” Millican was also responsible for the university’s unique pedestrian oriented concentric circle campus layout, which was based on plans by Walt Disney and has become a model for other universities. Millican and then-Governor Claude Kirk presided over FTU’s groundbreaking in March 1967. Eighteen months after the groundbreaking, the inaugural classes were held in the school’s first academic building, the library on October 7, 1968. 1,948 students were enrolled in fifty-five degree programs within five colleges, and were led by 90 instructors, and aided 150 staff members during the university’s first year. FTU graduated its first class of 423 seniors on June 14, 1970, with astronaut and Orlando native John Young giving the commencement address.
Millican selected the university’s official colors, and had a role in selecting its first mascot, the Citronaut, a mix between an orange and an astronaut. The Citronaut temporarily proved unpopular, so in 1969 the student newspaper–The Central Florida Future–encouraged mascot suggestions from students and faculty. The search for a replacement proved unsuccessful until 1970, when Judy Hines, a night nurse, proposed “Vincent the Vulture.” He served as the university’s unofficial mascot for more than a year. In late 1971, students voted and selected the “Knight of Pegasus” as the school’s official athletic mascot. After retiring as president in 1978, Millican would identify his proudest moment leading the school as when President Richard Nixon delivered the university’s spring 1973 commencement address.
Entering office in 1978, the university’s second president, Trevor Colbourn, recognized the diversification and growth of UCF’s academic programs away from its strictly technological and scientific beginnings. As the university developed strong business, education, and liberal arts programs, Colbourn recognized the university’s name no longer recognized its mission. From its establishment the university was known as “Florida Technological University”, nicknamed “Florida Tech”, until December 1978 when Governor Reubin Askew signed legislation changing the school’s name to the “University of Central Florida”.
Colbourn established the university’s honors program, and started the university’s first satellite branch campus. In addition, Colbourn was responsible for constructing the Central Florida Research Park, located adjacent to the UCF campus and founded in 1978. The park serves as a major focus of simulation for space and defense-related research. The park was one part of Colbourn’s plan to make UCF a world-class partnership university. Among the university’s first partners were Lockheed Martin and the United States Navy, and Colbourn led the push to found both the Institute for Simulation and Training and the Center for Research and Education in Optics and Lasers in 1986. During his tenure, enrollment increased from 11,000 in 1978 to over 18,000 in 1989. However, Colbourn’s most notable accomplishments as president were supporting the young university’s athletic programs. He was responsible for establishing the school’s football program in 1979, which began an era of growth for the university. In April 1979, UCF awarded its 15,000th degree.
In March 1992, John C. Hitt became UCF’s fourth president, ushering in an era of unprecedented growth and prominence for the university. Once known mainly as a small commuter and technology school, in recent years UCF has undertaken an effort to increase its academic and research standings while also evolving into a more traditional research university. When Hitt took office, UCF’s enrollment was 20,302, and as of 2014 enrollment consists of 60,821 students attending classes on twelve campuses spread across Central Florida. The university consists of thirteen colleges and employs more than 10,150 faculty and staff. Under the direction of Hitt, UCF has raised admissions standards, increased research funding, built new facilities, and established notable partnerships with major research institutions.
Hitt’s efforts have resulted in not only an increase in the university’s academic profile, but also an on-campus football stadium, new arena, more on-campus housing, and the development of the UCF College of Medicine at Lake Nona. Until 1999, the Knights were represented by a jouster from the Medieval Times dinner show located in nearby Kissimmee, Florida. That same year, Knightro was introduced at the staple homecoming event, “Spirit Splash.”
The past decade has seen enrollment increase by over forty percent at UCF, the acceptance rate for first time in college students falling from over 60% to near 40% in 2008, and the doubling of expected annual expenses. Since 2000, the university has awarded over 100,000 degrees. UCF is currently the largest university in the nation by terms of undergraduate enrollment, the largest university in Florida, and in 2003 held the distinction of being the fastest-growing university in the United States. During its Spring 2010 graduation ceremonies, The University of Central Florida awarded its 200,000th degree, less than five years after awarding its 150,000th diploma.
During its brief history, UCF has hosted numerous notable speakers. Among these are U.S. Presidents Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton, then Senator and Vice President Joe Biden, Senators Bill Nelson, Marco Rubio, Mel Martinez, John Edwards, Florida Governors Jeb Bush, Charlie Crist, President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama.