David Szymanski wants students to emerge “nimble, flexible and open-minded” with their career goals.
In late February, the University of North Florida Board of Trustees found the school’s next president in Ohio business school Dean David Szymanski.
Szymanski comes to UNF after leading the Carl H. Lindner College of Business at the University of Cincinnati.
He describes himself as a “classic academic” and has spent most of his career focusing on research, teaching and student development.
“Teaching is a passion,” he said, although he won’t be handing out class assignments.
Instead, Szymanski will use his other title, professor at UNF’s Coggin College of Business, to drop in occasionally as a guest lecturer.
Szymanski, 60, holds a Bachelor of Arts and Master of Arts in economics, an MBA with a marketing emphasis and a Ph.D. in marketing, with a minor in economics and analytics.
His academic career began in 1981 at Vanderbilt University and spans nearly four decades at campuses in Tennessee, Texas, Ohio, Wisconsin and now Florida.
He published research on marketing strategy, applied meta-analysis, and sales management in academic journals; authored articles in business periodicals; made several chapter contributions in textbooks; and lists presentations and keynote speaking engagements on his resume.
He wants UNF to adopt a strategy he said was a mainstay of his classrooms.
“I always told my students that I’m going to teach you how to think first, because information can change very rapidly, even during the semester,” he said.
He considers it critical.
“Your competitive advantage is how you think,” he said. “I want to make sure that that becomes second nature for our students moving forward.”
In today’s business climate, Szymanski said UNF students should be “nimble, flexible, and open-minded” with their career goals, “because the environment is just too dynamic today.”
He said the future is “the mosaic of diversity coming together.”
Szymanski also has been active on corporate boards, serving on the Office Depot Inc. board since 2013 and the Zale Corp. board from 2004-10.
He said he will spend significant time connecting with local companies in North Florida – a strategy he said paid off in Cincinnati.
“We went from an unranked business school to having a top 25 MBA program, in part, because of those connections,” Szymanski said.
The next in line
Szymanski’s background differs from that of his predecessor.
Former President John Delany came to UNF after serving as Jacksonville’s mayor, general counsel and chief assistant state attorney, among other roles.
Delaney’s connections to the capital in Tallahassee are viewed as one reason the school expanded in size and influence during his tenure.
Under Delaney, the school grew to 16,000 students, 600 faculty and more than 1,000 staff members. The average GPA of incoming students rose, as did the number of accredited programs.
“John did a great job for the school and the city,” Szymanski said.
Delaney also knew how to raise money, bringing in $250 million since he took over in 2003 and increasing the school’s endowment to $100 million.
“We were very successful at fundraising, too,” said Szymanski about the University of Cincinnati.
Szymanski acknowledged Delaney’s advantage of name recognition and rapport with government officials.
“I’m not going to try and duplicate that part of it, but I will be proactive and make it a priority of reaching out and meeting with key individuals who can help our university,” he said.
A focus on entrepreneurship
Szymanski said that up to 42 percent of college freshmen want to be entrepreneurs, “but what does that really mean?” Szymanski asked during an interview last week.
“Part of that means you have to learn what it takes, but it also means that cross-college collaboration has to occur,” he said.
UNF began addressing that before Szymanski arrived.
The school agreed with SouthEast Development Group and The Molasky Group of Companies to lease two floors in the Barnett National Bank building under renovation Downtown to create the Entrepreneurial Development and Business Incubation Center for undergraduate and graduate-level students.
“That’s where it comes to thinking about companies and partnerships and where students, particularly with internships and professional experiences in school, come into play,” he said.
The 16,000-square-foot expansion of the Coggin College of Business will allow students of all disciplines to work with area companies and entrepreneurs to learn how to launch their own businesses.
The first graduate-level courses are scheduled to begin in 2019.
Szymanski said he’s not ready to comment about when UNF’s Downtown footprint will further expand.
When it comes to growth in other areas, Szymanski said he doesn’t see many holes in the curriculum.
“I think we have some flagship programs that are tremendous,” he said.
“Logistics being one of them, nursing being another, along with nutrition, music as well as sort of the biological medicines and so on,” he said.
Szymanski said there are opportunities to expand graduate and doctoral-level programs.
“I know there are discussions with respect to a few programs, particularly the clinical side with respect to medical care. That’s a possibility,” he said.
Adjusting to Jacksonville
Szymanski has been meeting with area business leaders and is mapping his plans as the sixth president in UNF’s history.
“I probably spoke to 45, 50 people before I got here through phone calls, and everyone’s been great,” he said. “They’re passionate about the city.”
Szymanski also participated in Leadership Jacksonville’s New Leadership Summit in May.
He says he is familiar with outreach.
“I’ve had these similar kinds of experiences at other institutions and being out in the community, being part of the discussions that occur in terms of how can we make the city better, make the community better, those are the things I really strive for,” he said.
He said he and his wife, Maria, are doing just fine adjusting to Jacksonville.
“Some of the expectations have been right on target,” he said, noting that a Cincinnati faculty member and UNF alum gave them an education about North Florida before they arrived.
He described his interactions as being positive and welcoming.
Some of those calls and meetings include business and elected leaders, such as Mayor Lenny Curry.
Szymanski said Curry initiated the call when notified of the job.
“That conversation with the mayor ended with him making sure that we were buying a house here in Jacksonville,” he said.
“We checked that off the list, we’re right across the street from the school.”