A University ‘Destined for Greatness’
During his inaugural address, Hitt laid out his five goals for UCF.
- To offer the best undergraduate education available in Florida;
- To achieve international prominence in key programs of graduate study and research;
- To provide an international focus to our curricula and research programs;
- To become more inclusive and diverse; and
- To be America’s leading partnership university.
“I am convinced that if UCF achieves these goals, it will be America’s leading metropolitan university, and, even more importantly, we will be a vital force in Central Florida’s development as the nation’s most dynamic, vibrant regional economy,” he said during his November 1992 speech.
By the time Hitt’s presidency had concluded, his commitment to partnerships became such a part of the university’s mission and culture that UCF trademarked the moniker “America’s Partnership University.”
Hitt frequently credited faculty and staff with the university’s achievements, saying “without a great faculty, there can be no great university.”
Hitt also praised the UCF community as “some of the most remarkable people you’ll ever meet … I’m continually impressed by the UCF community, but never more so than when you’re willing to help during a moment of need.
Today, the John C. Hitt Library is named in his honor and the FAIRWINDS Alumni Center houses the Dr. John and Martha Hitt Library.
Meeting Martha … and Football
Born in Houston, Hitt graduated cum laude from Austin College in Sherman, Texas, where he also played offensive tackle on the Kangaroos’ football team, an experience he said cemented not just his love for the game, but the importance of teamwork.
He met Martha at Austin College. Martha recalled that he was “tall and really good looking, but really young” when she saw him for the first time when she was a junior and he was a freshman. She was “impressed that he was a freshman playing football with straight A’s.”
The next year, they were in two classes together, and they got to know each other well and started dating. They were married in 1961 in Houston.
“In many ways, Martha made John’s leadership and accomplishments possible. She was his closest friend, supporter and confidant,” said longtime friend and former Florida Board of Regents Chairman James Heekin, who also served as chair of the search committee that selected Hitt.
As a former collegiate player, near to his heart was the continued success of a football program that he believed was important for UCF to be perceived nationally as a major research university. In his final year as president, the Knights went undefeated and won a national championship after defeating Auburn in the Peach Bowl.
“Education transforms lives,” Hitt said, “and as a first-generation college student, I am proof of that life-changing process. Before my dad passed away when I was 15, he insisted that I pursue a college education. He didn’t know a whole lot about college, but he knew that better career opportunities and a better life were likely for me if I earned a college degree.”
“Without college, I would not have met Martha, my wonderful wife and partner. In more ways than he could foresee, Dad was right about college.”
Hitt earned master’s and doctoral degrees in physiological psychology from Tulane University and held academic, administrative and executive positions at Tulane, Texas Christian University, Bradley University and the University of Maine before his selection to lead UCF in 1992.
Legacy of Partnerships
Hitt’s belief in partnerships led him to recruit a natural rival — the University of South Florida — as a partner to create the Florida High Tech Corridor, an economic development initiative that eventually grew to include the University of Florida.
He worked with the City of Orlando, State of Florida and Electronic Arts to open the Florida Interactive Entertainment Academy in 2005 in downtown Orlando. The academy has been ranked as the No. 1 video game design program in the world for three consecutive years by The Princeton Review and PC Gamer magazine, and FIEA students now study just a short walk from EA Tiburon’s new downtown studios.
UCF also became a founding member of the University Innovation Alliance, a group of then 11 large public universities, including Arizona State, Texas and Ohio State, dedicated to helping more low-income and first-generation students earn college degrees.
The Florida Consortium of Metropolitan Research Universities, formed with the University of South Florida and Florida International University to help more students earn degrees in the state’s areas of highest need.
Hitt participated on numerous boards, including the Orlando Economic Partnership, Florida Council of 100 and the NCAA Division 1 Board of Directors. He was also chair of the State University Presidents Association, and a member of the EDUCAUSE and American Association of State Colleges and Universities boards of directors.
“John Hitt has left an amazing and lasting mark,” said Tico Perez ’83, a UCF graduate and former member of the Florida Board of Governors and UCF Board of Trustees. “His efforts to expand the university and our community are extraordinary; his standards of integrity and partnership exemplary. He is truly a community hero.”
To read more about President Hitt’s impact on UCF and Central Florida, go to President John C. Hitt | UCF Office of the President. Plans for a memorial service to honor Dr. Hitt’s life and legacy will be shared in the coming weeks.