David Szymanski is a fast-thinking man. He tends to speak rapidly, but even the speed of his cadence isn't quick enough to keep up with his mind.
It's the first official day of Szymanski's tenure as president of the University of North Florida when he sits down for a quick chat in an office in flux. Szymanski is still in the process of moving in; time will tell how he makes his mark. Amiable and engaging from the moment he shakes hands, Szymanski folds his 6'6" frame into a chair and settles in for a friendly conversation about the past, present and future of Jacksonville's largest university. And, of course, the ever-present Florida heat. When it's suggested that he invest in a high-quality sun visor, the athletic former basketball player laughs. "I already have one," he says, crediting lessons learned from years spent in Texas.
As he talks, it's clear that Szymanski, former dean of the Carl H. Lindner College of Business at the University of Cincinnati, is raring to go, but for now, he's in the assessment stage. The next several months he'll analyze the school from top to bottom with an eye on its most important feature: the student experience.
"It really is about the holistic student," he says.
Szymanski concedes that filling the shoes of Delaney, the university's fifth president (2003-2018), will be no small task. "John did a great job in terms of creating the really strong foundation, so I'm really pleased and thankful."
Szymanski, an academic with a doctorate and Masters' degrees, wants UNF to be an institution that adapts and evolves to address the needs of the students of today and tomorrow, their future employers and the community at large. Asked to be more specific about his plans, he laughs and admits that he's still getting to know the place, but says that there may be opportunities to grow some courses of study, like STEM, health/medical, coastal sciences, perhaps music.
In the meantime, Szymanski intends to look beyond campus to new opportunities to form partnerships with businesses, government, nonprofits and other leaders.
"There's the experience that [students] get by working with companies and organizations and people who are professionals who are successful... [such as] having great artists coming into the classroom," he says. As he talks, you can see the wheels turning, churning out new ideas.
Rather than merely imparting knowledge for a fee, Szymanski believes schools should endeavor to create better workers, better citizens and better people. Of course, improving graduation rates, placement rates, the facility, and attracting the best and brightest go hand-in-hand. He's the kind of guy who believes that the roots are more important than the branches; put another way, build a strong foundation and the building will withstand high winds. When the conversation shifts to the balance of allowing free expression and making students feel safe, Szymanski returns to his core principles. "What I'd like people to do is think about being respectful," he says, adding, "If you lead with respect, then a lot of things fall into place and you can have civil discourse but you can still feel safe where you are."
As a first-generation college student, who dribbled and studied his way into athletic and academic scholarships, Szymanski understands more than most the unique challenges such presents. Armed with this life experience and years in academia, at UC he created the PACE Program, which emphasizes professionalism, character, academics and engagement with an eye to ensuring students are equipped to pursue their personal and professional passions. It's this kind of thinking that earned him UNF's top job.
As much as he talks about change, however, Szymanski doesn't want to alter the fundamentals; he says he wants to offer students a "uniquely UNF" experience that they will cherish and benefit from over a lifetime.
"It's ready and poised to do greater things ... I want to make a difference, I want to come and make a difference for other people," he says. "It's never about me."
Read our interview with outgoing UNF President John Delaney here.