Leaving the Eagles' Nest
FGCU President Wilson Bradshaw bids adieu after a high-profile decade of accomplishments
Wilson Bradshaw is not sprinting toward his June 30 exit, but the longest-serving president is not dragging his feet either.
Several months ago, 67-year-old Bradshaw began clearing the mementos from his nearly 10 years on the job that stock his spacious third-floor office of Edwards Hall. One of his favorites: a basketball signed by the men’s basketball team that made a historic run as underdogs in the 2013 NCAA tournament, earning FGCU’s Eagles the moniker of Dunk City and the warmth of the limelight. Bradshaw is a super fan and cheers alongside students at games. But while he’s been packing for months, Bradshaw has not dedicated much thought to how he’ll be remembered once he leaves his office for good.
“I’m not being modest here, but I’ve just never thought about legacy.” Certainly he doesn’t stroll around campus wondering if one day a building might bear his name. “If they name a building after me, that’s great, but a building is not a legacy for me.” He sees his legacy as the students, and what the roughly 15,000 graduates FGCU has produced in his tenure will accomplish. And that’s not something you can immediately gauge. Yet, there has been tangible change since Bradshaw and his wife Jo Anna drove around the sparse campus one summer weekend after he read the advertisement for the position of president. “When we pulled into the main entrance, we could see all the way to the end because none of this development was here,” he recalls, as he gestures toward the expanded campus.
A decade later, he can look out from his office and see a university that’s grown into the space. The number of campus buildings has jumped from 50 to 90-plus. The capacity of on-campus housing has more than doubled. The student body has increased in diversity and size. FGCU now counts about 15,000 students. Then there is the academic growth, like the addition of doctoral programs, and the spike in the number of students seeking STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) degrees from 1,160 when he began to more than 8,000 students now.
“The second decade was Dr. Bradshaw’s time here and I think people will look back on it as a time of tremendous development,” says Susan Evans, the university’s chief of staff. Personally, she’ll miss his sense of humor. His wit is not an entirely expected trait from a university president with a doctorate in psychobiology.
“You think of a university president and maybe in the minds of some that includes a sense of stuffiness,” says Ron Toll, FGCU provost. “He uses his humor to kind of cut through the layers that some people think would separate them from him.”
Bradshaw has been accessible to students, meeting with them if they request to chat about issues and attending student events each week. “I’ve never seen a president more of a president of the students than Wilson Bradshaw,” says Toll. “He’s gone to 10 million athletic events and probably five million art openings and music performances and events that support outstanding student achievements.”
Students flag him down on campus. “They’ll stop me anywhere,” Bradshaw says. “More times than not, it’s constructive. It’s always been respectful.” One badge of honor he claims: “I have not been dissed by any student, at least not to my face.”
More quietly, he and his wife have contributed to scholarship funds, staffers say. He’s been a role model, particularly for minority students inspired by the path of the son of a postal clerk and rail- road porter who became the first in his family to graduate college before rising to the top seat at a university.
Bradshaw, too, is a product of public education. He received his associate’s degree from Palm Beach Community College and his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in psychology from Florida Atlantic University.
Over the years, Bradshaw received laudatory reviews. Some of his fiercest challenges, he says, came during the recession that hit Southwest Florida particularly hard. The region became known as a foreclosure hub in the late 2000s. FGCU had to make tough budget decisions, such as holding off on adding certain programs like the doctorate in education. It raised tuition to off-set budget shortfalls. Bradshaw says his principal aims were to preserve quality and affordability.
And, though Bradshaw entered the job in the wake of a scandal involving his predecessor—the late Bill Merwin resigned after admitting to an affair with a female faculty member—Bradshaw’s tenure has been relatively free of controversy.
That’s not to say there weren’t any.
In 2015, the Florida Board of Governors criticized Bradshaw for awarding a pair of senior administrators, including Evans, contracts that automatically renewed. “I learn from everything I do but I don’t think I would have done things differently,” Bradshaw says. “The folks who have those contracts are highly valued and highly sought after and they have been great resources and offered unwavering support.”
Graduation rates also spurred concern. The six-year graduation rate dipped from about 49 percent in 2014 to about 43 percent in 2015. Bradshaw believes programs and advisors are in place to improve the rate, but the students also need to recognize importance of graduating in four years, he says.
Bradshaw saw FGCU and its staff and students as integral to the region and vice versa. “One thing that I have learned over my career, especially for regional type of universities, it’s important for the leadership, faculty and staff to feel a part of that community and not apart from it.”
He and university decision-makers have considered the needs of the Southwest Florida economy when determining how to grow academic pro- grams, like health and environmental sciences. Bradshaw has been a booster of the Emergent Technologies Institute, an FGCU initiative that opened in 2016 with a focus on environmental stability and renew- able energy programs. One goal of his final months has been to bring form to the future of the institute. The vision was for it to be a research and development center on other evolving technologies as well. “Here in Southwest Florida, water is a big issue. What about water technologies that can be researched and developed?”
Community leaders lauded his ability to bridge FGCU with Southwest Florida.
“Dr. Bradshaw brought stability with a balanced focus on academics, growth, philanthropy, legislative support and continued community out- reach and partnering,” says Jim Nathan, president of Lee Health. “He also worked hard to position FGCU as a regional asset for all of Southwest Florida and not solely Lee County.”
As FGCU invested in the region during Bradshaw’s tenure, the region gave back. The university surpassed its fundraising goal by bringing in a total of $122 million through donors and organization over the past few years.
Much has been done, but what does Bradshaw feel is left undone as he sets out to fish and travel more? (After a sabbatical year, Bradshaw can return as a professor.)
“On a very light note, along those lines, football. Almost every day I’ve been president, somebody has asked me about football.” Someday, he says, FGCU will have a football team. “It’s just a matter of when, not if.”
A LEGACY OF GROWTH
NAME: Wilson Bradshaw
HOMETOWN: West Palm Beach
PERSONAL: Wife Jo Anna and three adult sons.
FGCU: The board of trustees unanimously selected Bradshaw as FGCU's third president on Aug. 25, 2007. He came to FGCU from Metropolitan State University in Minnesota, where he served seven years as president.
EDUCATION: associate's degree from Palm Beach Community College, bachelor’s and master’s degrees in psychology from Florida Atlantic University, and doctorate in psychobiology from the University of Pittsburgh. He was awarded a postdoctoral fellowship from the Laboratory of Neural and Endocrine Regulation at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
ACCOMPLISHMENTS AT FGCU: The university has grown significantly since Bradshaw took office in November 2007.
ENROLLMENT GROWTH: from 9,388 to 14,821 students
DEGREE PROGRAMS: from 73 to 88, including the first doctoral programs
CAMPUS BUILDINGS: from 50 to more than 90, including the construction and opening of Lutgert Hall for the Lutgert College of Business; Seidler Hall for the College of Arts and Sciences; Marieb Hall for the College of Health Professions and Social Work; Holmes Hall for the U.A. Whitaker College of Engineering; Cohen Center Student Union; Fine Arts Music Building; and numerous residence halls for students.
ON-CAMPUS HOUSING: from 1,984 to 4,748 students
OPERATING BUDGET: from $130 million to $236 million
STUDENTS PURSUING DEGREES IN STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics): from 1,164 to 8,103
SPORTS: Athletics programs were granted NCAA Division I status.
A FEW THINGS YOU MAY NOT KNOW ABOUT WILSON BRADSHAW:
• Friends call him "Brad."
• He's funny.
• He bakes from scratch and makes a mean apple bread.
What’s Next for the New President?
Longtime university administrator Michael Martin was named FGCU's new president in February. Martin, formerly a chancellor at Louisiana State University, will take over when Wilson Bradshaw steps down in June.
As FGCU brings on its fourth president, one of the primary tasks for the 20-year- old university is to hone its brand, says Ken Smith, member of the FGCU board of trustees who was chairman of the presidential search advisory committee.
"Every school isn't good at everything. We're not going to be known for football, so we might as well focus on academics," says Smith, with levity. "We've got to be famous for something."
There are programs with potential to become trademarks, he says. It's just deciding where to focus. Is it the school of music?
"Although we are a leader, I don't know if we've totally explored how to maximize that and leverage that," Smith says.
Or should FGCU make educating healthcare professionals its priority?
"That college could be the go-to spot in the Southeast U.S. for everything in the medical profession other than producing doctors."
There's also the business college, which could prime more graduates for places like Hertz, headquartered in Estero. "I'm not saying we're going to be the next Harvard or Yale but the program we have built is nobody's fool," Smith says.
The Princeton Review has recognized FGCU's Lutgert College of Business in its books on the best business schools.
"It's at that point, the next president is going to come in and work with faculty and staff to get those centers of excellence up. People say, 'Oh you think we're going to be the new UF?' I just want to be the best FGCU we can be." What's more, the university's location,
on the edge of Everglades and near estuaries, various rivers and the Gulf of Mexico, positions it to be a stronger leader on water quality and policy issues through environmental programs, Smith says. Water quality rose to the top of Southwest Florida concerns last year when dark water rushed into the Gulf of Mexico following discharges from Lake Okeechobee.
But if FGCU wants to become known for certain programs, it will need the next president to be a "warrior" at fundraising, Smith says, because in order to push FGCU to a higher level the university will need more money. "I'm telling you there's not a place as ready to launch."
He acknowledges the new president may see things differently. "The next president may come in and say, 'You guys are full of it. Here's what we need to do.'"