By Camille Murawski
Wendell C. Lawther was the third public administration faculty member hired at UCF. He is set to retire at the end of the summer and recently reflected on his time here as a professor.
When Wendell Lawther first came to the University of Central Florida in 1984, University Boulevard was “a two-lane country road,” he said, shaking his head in mild disbelief.
Other changes that thankfully have gone by the wayside are the printed course catalog and standing in line to register for classes, he added. However, one variable has remained fairly constant: “A very good cadre of bright, hardworking students.”
Since the university’s admission rates have risen steadily, adding more than 1,000 students or so each year, he said he is not surprised that UCF has grown into one of the largest universities in the country.
And even now, more than 32 years later, Lawther said he has been “very fortunate … I still can’t wait to get to work.”
The best thing about working at UCF, he added, is that “whatever you want to do, people are supportive.”
Lawther was born in Pennsylvania and received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of Delaware. He then continued his studies at Indiana University, where he received his doctorate. The title of his dissertation is “Determinants of Administrative Professionalism in the American States.”
Lawther’s parents didn’t steer him toward a career in higher education, but his father, a physics professor, and his mother, a librarian, gave him a good foundation for a career in academia.
It wasn’t until he was a junior in college, Lawther said, that he decided he wanted to be a teacher. He did not want to teach physics as his father had, “Although, I was pretty good in math,” he said. “I wanted to do something ‘real world,’ something in public administration.”
When he read “The Study of Administration,” an essay by Woodrow Wilson published in 1887 (and readily available to read for free on the Internet), Lawther was inspired by passages such as this one:
“Our duty is, to supply the best possible life to a federal organization, to systems within systems; to make town, city, county, state, and federal governments live with a like strength and an equally assured healthfulness, keeping each unquestionably its own master and yet making all interdependent and co-operative combining independence with mutual helpfulness. The task is great and important enough to attract the best minds.”
Lawther was teaching at Old Dominion University in Virginia when he heard about a new position in public administration that had opened up in sunny Florida. He knew that the opportunity to grow a program in public administration was the chance of a lifetime. So he and his wife, Cindi – and their family – settled into the Orlando community.
As one of the first professors in public administration, Lawther said he was excited in 1998 to help build the college’s interdisciplinary Doctoral Program in Public Affairs. He served as the committee chair that created the program. The committee also included four faculty members from each academic discipline to ensure that the program offered the highest-quality educational experience for its students.
During his tenure, Lawther also was able to perform research focusing on public-private partnerships, especially focusing on those found in transportation. A call emanating from the Florida Department of Transportation in 1990 resulted in a lifetime research interest. Two books, several articles and additional grants from FDOT followed. “If it is done correctly, such partnerships can lead to better quality outcomes at lower cost,” he stated.
Other changes that Lawther was a part of include the shift from a bricks-and-mortar classroom to a virtual one. “I had a little apprehension,” Lawther said, when he first taught online classes in 1998. However, there was always a lot of technical support available from UCF staff, he said, so he became a convert. “Online courses are actually more work for teachers and students,” Lawther said. The online environment also requires that all students participate, versus the traditional classroom setting where introverts may reside more anonymously.
Online and evening courses have expanded so much over the years, Lawther said. “UCF has always catered to the working professional.” In fact, a student can get his or her MPA entirely at night, with many of the courses also available online.
Lawther has been teaching only graduate students for the past 10 years or so. He appreciates them for their work ethic: Typically “they are paying for their own tuition, they make Bs or better, and they are very refreshing students.” He said he enjoyed teaching the Capstone Course, where he was able to have “high-powered, intensive discussions with students, encouraging them to maximize their intelligence and to stretch their boundaries of what they thought possible.”
Some of the joy went out of his and Cindi’s life in 2008, when their son passed away. Dr. James MacDonald, a graduate of UCF’s pre-med program and a pediatric surgeon, died at the age of 47 after a battle with brain cancer. “We think about his courage and determination every day; he is always in our hearts, guiding us through our daily challenges,” Lawther said.
“It feels like the right time to retire now,” Lawther continued, and then smiled. “It’s better to go out on top.”
Wendell and Cindi – who recently celebrated their 38th wedding anniversary – will now have the opportunity to travel more. Western New York and New England are favorite vacation spots, but the couple also likes weekend getaways to St. Pete’s Beach.
Lawther also likes to play golf, and he will enjoy managing a fantasy baseball team. He also hopes to have more time for reading novels. He has become interested in genealogy as well. “You never know what you might find,” Lawther said.
For his own legacy, Lawther said he doesn’t want to be remembered as “the professor who gave everybody A’s.” His preference, he said, is to be known as “tough, but fair. I’ve taught more than 3,000 students, and my hope is they remember their time with me as a positive experience.”