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Exit interview: Key moments in 30-year transformation of University of Tampa

Ron Vaughn’s turnaround strategy at the University of Tampa nearly 30 years ago was straightforward: Stop overspending. Find the big problems and solve them fast. And prioritize constant improvement.

  • By Mark Gordon
  • | 5:00 a.m. March 29, 2024
  • | 2 Free Articles Remaining!
Ron Vaughn will retire as University of Tampa president May 31.
Ron Vaughn will retire as University of Tampa president May 31.
Photo by Mark Wemple
  • Tampa Bay-Lakeland
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In a career full of accolades and accomplishments that runs deep into the dozens, University of Tampa President Ronald Vaughn’s most impressive feat might be something most college students detest: he wrecked the curve. 

Not within any classes at his beloved UT, a private college on 100 acres on the riverfront in downtown Tampa. Instead, it’s Vaughn’s tenure as president. When Vaughn, 77, officially retires May 31, he will have been at the helm for 29 years, since January 1995. That’s roughly five times longer than the average college president's tenure of 5.9 years, according to a 2023 survey from the American Council of Education. And that average tenure is shrinking, ACE reports, from 6.5 years in 2016 and 8.5 years in 2006. 

By comparison, Jacksonville University, another private college in a large Florida city — founded in 1934, three years after UT — has had five presidents since 1995, with one since 2013. The University of Miami has had three top leaders since 1995. And, closer to home, the University of South Florida, while much bigger in student enrollment and overall budget, and part of the state of Florida system, has had four presidents since 1995. One of those, Judy Genshaft, was there for 19 years, another outlier in a sea of short tenures.

The University of Tampa was founded in 1931.
Courtesy Image

Vaughn, by accounts from the school’s alumni, board of trustees and many in the Tampa business and civic community, has made the most of his long tenure at UT. Some of the highlights include:

  • Enrollment has grown from 1,420 full-time students when Vaughn was named president to a little more than 11,000 in 2024. The school has set 25 record-highs for student enrollment since 1995.
  • Academic programs have expanded to more than 200 areas of study.
  • Full time faculty has grown from 150 to about 900, with similar growth in staff and vendor employees.
  • The annual budget has increased to about $420 million; it was around $28 million in fall in 1994.
  • There’s been over 70 building projects totaling about $1 billion in value since 1997.
  • UT has raised about $250 million in its first two comprehensive capital campaigns,with a third campaign underway.
  • UT’s annual economic impact is now estimated at $1.5 billion.

The success and longevity belie how much of a challenge Vaughn took on when he was named president in 1995 — a week after Pres. Clinton gave his second State of the Union address. 

The area around the campus, at best, was blighted. And student enrollment, the main source of revenue on nearly any college campus to improve facilities, hire more staff and faculty and improve school programs, was stagnant. There were 225 incoming UT freshmen in Vaughn’s freshman year as president. “It was really bad,” Vaughn says. “Another year like that and we would’ve been out of business.”

Instead, Vaughn and UT played a key role in Tampa’s revitalization. 

“Dr. Vaughn’s impact on the University of Tampa and our community is immeasurable and nothing short of amazing,” says Tampa Mayor Jane Castor in a statement to the Business Observer. Castor graduated from UT in 1981. “He took a university in a downward spiral and turned it into one of the premier private academic institutions in the nation. I would describe his leadership style as a quiet storm, working almost behind the scenes to accomplish so much. He had a clear, long-range vision for the University of Tampa and enabled others to see that vision and buy into it so he could go year after year methodically accomplishing the goals to realize that vision.

“Ron Vaughn started out with a handful of old hand-me-down buildings, and transformed the campus into a dynamic, cutting-edge community that has some of the most innovative learning and living spaces in the country,” adds James Eyer, vice chair of the board of trustees, in a statement last year announcing Vaughn’s retirement. 

Sense of place

In a recent wide-ranging interview in the UT president’s office, Vaughn talked about his career, with a focus on some of his best moments, decisions and lessons learned. Edited excerpts: 

Credit check

Vaughn’s Florida, and Tampa, origin story has a familiar feel — at least in fleeing cold weather. A native of Paris, Illinois, in the eastern part of the state, with a bachelor’s in marketing and an MBA from Indiana State and a doctorate from the University of Georgia, Vaughn was at Bradley University in Peoria, Illinois in the early 1980s. He was a professor and chaired the marketing department, and he also ran a marketing and research business that had five offices in four cities, doing some 600 projects a year. Clients ranged from ad agencies and supermarkets to farms and rail lines. 

At Bradley and the company he ran, and acquired in 1978, Scotti Research, Vaughn discovered his passion was in assembling high-performing teams that could solve big problems. He didn’t think of himself as a “job hopper,” he says, but a decade into his Bradley career he saw a job ad in the Chronicle of Higher Education for a marketing professor at the University of Tampa. The position was for an endowed chair, which, Vaughn knew, meant he could have a bit more control over classes and curriculum.

He flew down to Tampa during a late January Illinois blizzard. He recalls the day he left he cleaned the snow of his windshield by using credit cards in his wallet. “It was pretty miserable weather back home,” he says, “and when you’re sitting here in Florida in the pool, eating oysters, you knew Tampa was going to be a great city.”

Stick around

Of course, the Tampa of 1985 is quite different from the Tampa of today. Kennedy Boulevard, the main UT thoroughfare, was run down. But Vaughn, named coordinator of the UT marketing department and holder of the Max H. Hollingsworth Endowed Chair of American Enterprise in 1984, was enamored with what the college, and city, could be. “I saw something really special here,” he says. “I knew this would really be a great place to develop a university.”

“I probably got here too early,” he adds, motioning his head toward downtown, where Water Street Tampa and multiple other projects have reshaped Tampa into a leading Southern U.S. city. “I was here before the city’s renaissance but I’m not someone who moves around a lot. I like to stay and develop things.” 

Ron Vaughn plans to spend time reading, traveling and fishing in retirement.
Photo by Mark Wemple
Be better

Vaughn was named president of UT after a decade teaching. In a statement announcing his retirement, school officials said at the time Vaughn was named president the college was “languishing both financially and academically.” 

Vaughn, using his big-picture problem solving mindset, says from the first day he wanted everybody on his staff to know that whatever they did, it had to be done with a “culture of constant improvement.” 

Examples included multiple programs geared toward student success, both enhancing old ones and creating new ones. The school, early in Vaughn’s tenure as president, also revamped its financial aid department. The financial aid process was so bad, Vaughn recalls, UT was giving too much money to some students while others, approved for funds, were getting too little. “It was a speed game for the first one and half years,” he says. “We were just fixing problems constantly.” 

Really rally 

Rein in

Another move early on was from page one of the business turnaround playbook: spend less money. “We stopped overspending on things,” he says. “I think I knew how desperate the situation was, I knew how difficult the situation was. But I was pretty confident I could turn it around pretty quickly.”

Right seats: Vaughn says his confidence in the turnaround was boosted by some of the people already at UT. “One of the big reasons I took this position is because I could see all the good people who worked here,” he says. “I knew they could rally and do the things that had to be done and I’ve never been disappointed with them.”

Key move

Vaughn says a conscious decision to become a large private university was a big part of the turnaround. Some people on campus, and alumni, worried becoming a bigger college would make UT like any other school and eliminate the small, folksy feel that drew people there in the first place. “That fear was real,” Vaughn says. “Of course they were wrong, but it was a real fear back then. But you have all this overhead you have to pay for. You can only do that with economies of scale.” 

Vaughn also noted, in an interview on Suncoast Business Forum on WEDU in early March, that colleges that didn’t take a go-big strategy struggled. Over the last 15 years, he said, some 700 colleges have either merged or disappeared. “We’ve thrived, frankly, during this time period,” Vaughn said on the WEDU TV show. “We’ve grown and developed and built and expanded our enrollment, despite the competitiveness.”

Pay it forward

Vaughn cites longtime Winn-Dixie executive and prominent Tampa civic leader Max Hollingsworth as one of his UT mentors. Hollingsworth, who died at 92 in 2004, was a man of high character and ethics, Vaughn says. “His philosophy was we are put on this earth to help people,” he says, “and we have to pay for the space, the dirt, that we take up here.”

What’s next

Vaughn says he will be available to his successor, Teresa Abi-Nader Dahlberg from Texas Christian University, if needed, “but mostly I will just stay away.” He wants to write a book, focusing on “the considerable success” he and his team had at UT.

He plans to continue reading, from magazines to books “I read broadly, I read science, technology, all political viewpoints,” he says. No topic is too arcane, he adds, saying he recalls when the school’s IT people began worrying about cybersecurity threats, he read up on the topic for hours to deeply understand the threats and potential solutions. 

One more big spot on Vaughn’s retirement to-do list is travel with his wife Renée Vaughn. They recently returned from a trip to Dubai. Before that was Japan. Up next is Scotland and Ireland. And a passionate fisherman, Vaughn has his eyes on an Alaska trip, too. “She’s never been there,” he says. 



Mark Gordon

Mark Gordon is the managing editor of the Business Observer. He has worked for the Business Observer since 2005. He previously worked for newspapers and magazines in upstate New York, suburban Philadelphia and Jacksonville.

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