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  1. The Education Gradebook

Survival years long gone, University of Tampa riding wave of growth

TAMPA —Two decades ago, the University of Tampa's future was in doubt.

By the mid-1990s, enrollment had sunk below 2,500 students. The university's endowment was stuck near $6 million, with no prospects for bringing in significant funds from donors.

Today, nearly 8,000 students roam the landmark campus in the shadow of downtown Tampa, and the endowment has swelled to $68 million. Last week, the private school announced a $150 million capital campaign. With nearly $135 million already pledged, the goal appears attainable.

"It's gone from wondering whether or not it's going to make it to what you see today," said former Mayor Dick Greco, a UT alum who remembers the campus when it was still partly fairgrounds and Plant Hall didn't have air conditioning.

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The school sparked to life in 1931 as a junior college with 67 students paying $232 a year to attend.

When it became a university in 1933, it moved into the Tampa Bay Hotel —the minaret-topped building now called Plant Hall.

The campus occupies the site of the old Florida State fairgrounds. The soccer stadium sits where rides and attractions used to set up. The technology building was once the petting zoo.

Until 1976, the state fair still was happening on UT's campus.

By the 1990s, the school had added 36 buildings, but enrollment floundered.

Steve Hekkanen, a psychology professor who has worked at UT for 35 years, said the university had seen a steady decline in enrollment, but it hit a sharp drop in the '90s.

In turn, tuition revenue dwindled. The situation was so dire, there was talk of UT folding and the University of South Florida taking over the campus along the Hillsborough River.

"We were finally down so many students that the faculty was getting anxious," Hekkanen said. "We thought, 'Are our jobs coming to an end?' "

January 1995 brought big changes: new president Ronald Vaughn and a new vice president for enrollment, Barbara Strickler.

Vaughn said he made too many changes to count. He tweaked the budget, raised money and held open meetings explaining to faculty that growth, perhaps to 6,000 or 7,000 students, gradually would stabilize the campus.

"There was a number of things to be done, and they had to be done quickly," Vaughn said.

When the millennium hit, enrollment was up to almost 3,500 students.

Amid all the changes were pockets of faculty pushback, Hekkanen said. At the open meetings, faculty raised challenging questions.

About half were opposed to greatly increasing enrollment, Hekkanen said, potentially discouraging students who were looking for a smaller, more attentive environment. Others cared more about survival than class sizes, Hekkanen said.

"The growth would change the nature of the university," he said. "But in terms of stability, it created a tremendous amount of it."

The school, which charges $27,044 for full-time undergraduate tuition, does its best to maintain a 16-to-1 student-to-teacher ratio, said Dennis Nostrand, UT's vice president for enrollment.

"What's really changed is our ability to be much more selective, and much more diverse," Nostrand said. "You could be sitting next to someone from Texas, or California or Ghana, where at the state schools it's usually Florida, or Florida or Florida."

About 18 percent of UT's students are international, and about half come from out of state.

Nostrand said he warns students when they apply that UT isn't a "suitcase college." They're too far away to pack up and go home every weekend.

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It has been two decades since the panic of what Hekkanen calls "the survival years" began to fade.

Vaughn, now in his 21st year as president, plans to focus the remainder of his tenure on steering the new capital funds toward updating old buildings, constructing new ones and, eventually, adding more programs to the curriculum.

In the next six years, Vaughn predicts almost 9,000 students will roam the campus, getting lost in the history and exploring new facilities.

For former alumni such as Greco, who remember the campus in its humbler form, UT's turnaround is nothing short of amazing.

"It's a beautiful place," Greco said, "and a wonderful testament to people recognizing what it could be."

Contact Hanna Marcus at hmarcus@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3374. Follow @hmarcus.

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