University of North Florida President David Szymanski will step down next month and transition to leading a “university-based medical and health care nexus” he established at the school. Szymanski, who was hired by the Jacksonville university in 2018, announced Thursday that he will leave the presidential post effective Sept. 17 to become CEO and executive director of UNF MedNexus.
The MedNexus initiative established a key beachhead in Palm Coast’s Town Center last year in partnership with Palm Coast government and AdventHealth Palm Coast, among others. Its first semester of classes launches this fall in Palm Coast with a projected enrollment of 50 students and $1 million in scholarships. State lawmakers appropriated $6 million in initial funding for the program last year. Palm Coast government appropriated $1.5 million as its contribution for MedNexus’s start-up costs.
The Palm Coast partnership was largely the result of talks between then-Palm Coast Mayor Milissa Holland with David Szymanski and Rep. Paul Renner, the Pal;m Coast Republican.
The initiative is aimed at fostering partnerships, including the university’s Brooks College of Health and “health care providers, thought leaders, educational institutions and researchers” to “address the state’s growing and evolving health care needs,” according to UNF’s website.
Szymanski’s decision signals the breadth and weigh of UNF’s investment in MedNexus and now places the person most responsible for it behind its development, in Jacksonville and in Palm Coast.
“Approaching the final year of my presidency and shortly after receiving state support for UNF MedNexus, I initiated discussions with the leadership of the (university system) Board of Governors and (UNF) Board of Trustees and the chancellor on the best timing for a transition to lead UNF MedNexus on a full-time basis,” Szymanski said in a statement published by the university.
“From my very first meeting with President Szymanski he spoke of innovation and developing something unique,” Holland said this evening. “His passion for designing a true pipeline of talent into a career pathway was evident through the creation of the MedNexus initiative and I am pleased that this will be his area of focus. This will ensure a successful continuation of what we embraced in Town Center since its inception and will lead to many opportunities for many of our residents seeking employment in the field of Healthcare.”
In mid-June, the university appointed Miriam Griffin to be MedNexus-Palm Coast’s program director.
Szymanski has earned a base salary of $405,000 during his time as president. He served as dean of the University of Cincinnati’s business school before being hired by UNF. State university system Chancellor Marshall Criser said in a statement that he is “thrilled” to have Szymanski heading up the MedNexus initiative. “Under President Szymanski’s leadership, UNF has reached new heights of excellence, and I am confident that his leadership of UNF MedNexus will bring together the brightest educators, administrators and researchers to address health care challenges throughout Northeast Florida and the state,” Criser said.
The UNF Board of Trustees will meet to consider an interim president this month, the university said Thursday, and details on the search for a permanent president will be announced soon.
With Thursday’s announcement, Szymanski became the second state university president to step down in recent weeks. Former University of South Florida President Steven Currall’s departure from the job he held for two years took effect this week. Currall said he made the decision to step down based on stress from leading the university through the COVID-19 pandemic and a desire to spend more time with family. Like Szymanski, Currall announced he will stay with the university as a professor. The USF Board of Trustees this week named attorney Rhea Law as interim president.
UNF has been recognized as a nationally ranked public university by U.S. News and World Report for the first time in its nearly 50-year history and has achieved dramatic and substantial growth on nearly every State University System of Florida performance metric, according to a UNF press release. Under Szymanski’s leadership, the University also raised nearly $50 million; hit a record endowment of over $147.6 million.
“UNF MedNexus is about students. It’s about jobs. It’s about meeting the healthcare needs of our community, our state and our healthcare providers,” said Szymanski. “UNF MedNexus will become a leader and catalyst in preparing high-quality healthcare professionals in Northeast Florida and throughout the state in a way that is innovative and uniquely UNF.”
Projections indicate that over 20 percent of Florida’s future job growth will be in healthcare disciplines, according to the release. UNF MedNexus is designed to meet these growing healthcare needs by linking resources across county lines and throughout the state in a collaborative effort to expand educational programs and enhance medical research. Northeast Florida is a top destination for quality healthcare, including highly specialized services, and UNF is at the center of this medical ecosystem. In Palm Coast specifically, the initiative is developing as AdventHealth Palm Coast has broken ground on a second hospital, and Flagler Health+ of St. Augustine has signaled its own intentions to build a hospital at the western edge of Palm Coast Parkway, almost within sight of the AdventHealth hospital.
“We are on the verge of becoming a healthcare Mecca. And we’re going to have literally hundreds of doctors, nurses, healthcare professionals, staff, members, faculty in town,” Toby Tobin, the real estate broker and publisher of GoTobin.com, told the Palm Coast City Council–in reference to a projected apartment development that would appeal to health care professionals–on Tuesday.
The hub-and-spoke structure of UNF MedNexus allows the University of North Florida and its partners — healthcare providers, thought leaders, educators and researchers — to address the state’s growing and evolving healthcare needs, while providing pathways for Florida students to find healthcare positions in the state and beyond. Through an innovative partnership with Palm Coast and AdventHealth, UNF MedNexus is extending UNF’s nursing programs and partnering on a second simulation lab in Palm Coast.
UNF MedNexus partners also include regional colleges such as Florida State College at Jacksonville, St. Johns River State College and Daytona State College, as well as local secondary school systems, among them the Flagler County school district and its flagship program, that will be working together to develop unique career pathways from high school through to job placement.
The News Service of Florida contributed to this article.