Ronald Vaughn, who will retire soon as the University of Tampa’s president after 29 years, can explain why he’s stayed in the job so long.
“I like to stick around and see what difference I can make,” he said in a recent interview.
His tenure stands out in a profession where college presidents serve 5.9 years on average, according to a survey from the American Council on Education. He was around for a grim chapter three decades ago when struggles with enrollment and revenue had people predicting that the university would close.
Vaughn, 76, is known as the person who didn’t let that happen, while managing to stay out of the limelight.
He’s “the quiet storm,” said Tampa Mayor Jane Castor, a graduate of the university in the 1970s and a current member of its board of trustees.
Describing Vaughn as a “thoughtful visionary” and a “stickler for details,” she said the university she attended was nothing like it is today.
“President Ron Vaughn has transformed the University of Tampa into one of the leading private universities, not just in the United States but throughout the world,” Castor said.
“The general sense is that Ron Vaughn has done an amazing job, basically saving the university,” added Ryan Cragun, the faculty senate president.
Vaughn arrived on campus in 1984 from Bradley University, where he was a marketing professor. He hadn’t been hunting for a job, but UT’s opening for the Max H. Hollingsworth Endowed Chair of American Enterprise proved enticing. And after he visited Tampa in January following a blizzard in Peoria, Illinois, the decision became easy.
By the early 1990s, Vaughn became dean of the College of Business and Graduate School. But the university faced a series of challenges.
Enrollment was around 1,420, with predictions showing multiple years of red ink. Programs were being downsized and faculty and staff jobs were being eliminated.
“So, morale was not high,” Vaughn recalled.
In December 1994, the university’s board of trustees parted ways with then-president David Ruffer. Vaughn was appointed as his replacement in January 1995.
In taking on the new role, Vaughn met with community members. Many questioned whether he really wanted to take on the job.
“They thought it was too far gone,” said Vaughn, who saw it differently.
“I felt like I understood the situation,” he said, “I knew there were lots of good people, and I felt confident that they would rally to the changes that would be necessary. That was one thing that was very clear: We needed to change.”
Vaughn describes himself as a “student of change” and it’s something the university has seen much of in his time.
In his first decade as president, enrollment grew to 5,000. It now sits at more than 11,000. He changed the school’s marketing approach and made adjustments to management and the budget.
From there, he said, the campus needed to expand in order to keep pace with rising enrollment.Its older buildings, he said, were not conducive to hosting competitive academic programs. In 1996, he helped producethe university’s first master plan. Several plans later, the campus has grown from a handful of buildings to a 110-acre complex encompassing more than 70 buildings.
Castor called it an “aesthetic jewel in Tampa’s crown.”
Among the newer projects are a fitness center, a sports complex and a health and technology building. They sport familiar names of the region’s benefactors: the Jenkins family, founders of Publix; the Sykes family of Sykes Enterprises; the family of Vince Naimoli, original owner of the Rays, among others. Some say it’s a testament to Vaughn’s fundraising abilities.
“We were always focused on how we’re going to make it better for our students and for the institution,” Vaughn said. “And if you do that every single year, as we’ve done now for about 29 years, more than one time, you really get someplace.”
To Vaughn, the buildings are more than physical spaces.
He says they help drive change. The Jenkins Health and Technology Building, opened recently,is equipped to host an “ethical hacking” competition for the university’s cyber security program — a field that wasn’t around when Vaughn became president.
In his time, UT’s academic profile has risen as well. The average GPA of incoming students and its place in national rankings, particularly its business school, has risen. The student body is more diverse.
Students remain in the area after graduation, making UT a “talent importer,” Vaughn said.
Cragun said Vaughn is well-versed in the latest trends in higher education. He points to the president raising awareness more than a decade ago about the demographic cliff — the predicted drop in the college-aged population expected to begin in 2025.
“He’s very thoughtful leader,” Cragun said. “He thinks a lot, he takes his time, he’s very hands on. But he’s not going to be the one who’s running on to the baseball field to throw out the first pitch.”
Vaughn’s wife, Renee, said Tampa developer Al Austin, a friend of the Vaughns, once jokingly asked a group who the biggest developer in town was. They expected him to say himself, but Austin said it was Ron Vaughn, she recalled.
Renee Vaughn had worked for former Tampa Mayor Dick Greco as director of arts and culture and served on more than 50 boards, including The Florida Aquarium and Tampa Theatre. She had served on UT’s Board of Fellows since 1994, serving as chairperson in 2003. She had known of Ronald Vaughn, and volunteered at the H.B. Plant Museum on campus,occasionally talking with prospective parents.
She recalls telling them: “If I had kids, I would definitely want them to go to this school. I see the president all over campus all the time. I think he just he treats all of them like his own.”
Renee met Ron in 2007, after his first wife died. Mutual friends, she said, were instrumental in seating them at the same table a few times.
“It’s a great love story,” she said. “And we have a tremendous love of the university. I know that sounds kind of crazy, but we love our students and faculty. People treat each other like family. And so it’s really it’s been our family for the last 15 years.”
Castor said the Vaughns have been “the 1-2 punch,” and that Renee Vaughn was instrumental in the university’s transformation.
Ronald Vaughn said he’s enjoyed the variety and challenges that came with the job. One challenge he couldn’t predict was the pandemic, which put him in crisis mode for a year.
“That takes a toll on you,” Vaughn said. “We have a good team here…. and so we got through it. You get through difficult things, and you can handle it, and you get a little stronger.”
In retirement, he said he looks forward to spending more time with his wife, writing a book and perhaps returning to his past life as a consultant — this time working with small universities that may be on the brink of folding.
Cragun, who serves on the search committee for the next president, said the members have winnowed down an initial pool of 160 candidates. They expect to announce Vaughn’s successor in the spring.
Many faculty find this crossroads to be energizing, Cragun said. As Vaughn has led them to growth, they are divided over whether the school should become more teaching-focused or expand its research presence.
“That’s probably something that the next president is going to have to decide,” Cragun said.
Vaughn, who got UT to this place, said his guiding principle has been simple.
“I say you’re either getting better or you’re getting worse. There is no in-between,” he said. “You can’t stand still.”
Divya Kumar is a higher education reporter for the Tampa Bay Times, in partnership with Open Campus.