By Walter Villa, Special to STU
It was perfect.
Perfect setting. Perfect speaker.
Given the historic relationship between St. Thomas University and the Miami Dolphins, Wednesday’s Miami Lakes Chamber of Commerce luncheon at the Miami Lakes Hotel felt right.
The hotel was formerly named after Don Shula, the late great coach of the Dolphins for 26 years. The most famous of those years was the 1972 season, when Shula led the Dolphins to a 17-0 record – still the only perfect ledger in modern NFL history.
For more than three decades, STU hosted Dolphins training camp, which is what made Wednesday’s Chamber of Conference luncheon so special.
You see, STU President David A. Armstrong, J.D., was the guest speaker at the luncheon, and his 27-minute speech would have made Shula proud as it scored points with seemingly every person in the audience.
President Armstrong was introduced by Alex Rizo, a member of the Florida House of Representatives since 2020. During his introduction speech, Rizo kept the football metaphor alive by saying that both he and President Armstrong have hit it off, in part, because they are both former linemen, a position that requires toughness and teamwork.
“The offensive line is a unit, (but) they have to perform as one individual, basically,” Rizo said. “If any one of those five linemen breaks down, it all collapses.”
Under President Armstrong, STU has done the opposite of collapse. As Rizo said during his speech, since President Armstrong took over in August of 2018, the university has developed more than 400,000 square feet of new facilities while also experiencing record enrollment in each of the past five years.
“When I took a tour of (STU) 15 years ago, it looked like a university on the way out,” Rizo said. “What (President Armstrong) has done to bring millions of dollars to this university is nothing short of amazing.”
After Rizo was done with his introduction, Armstrong joked that he was pleased to get such glowing praise in exchange for just a $20 contribution to the politician’s campaign.
Turning serious, President Armstrong said the Miami Lakes Hotel is special to him because this is where he stayed while interviewing to become St. Thomas University’s tenth president.
In addition, President Armstrong’s first public event as STU’s president came on October 10, 2018 – right there at the Miami Lakes Hotel. He was addressing the Miami Lakes Chamber of Commerce back then also.
On Wednesday, President Armstrong talked about the importance of small faith-based institutions such as St. Thomas University.
STU, President Armstrong said, has become an access institution … but without the funding of state schools.
Still, when President Armstrong arrived at STU, a voucher program provided families of a Florida student who opted to go to a private school with $3,500 annually.
“That was one of the reasons why I came to St. Thomas University,” Armstrong said. “I saw that the state was investing in private education.”
However, that funding was soon cut to just $1,800 annually, and President Armstrong was tireless in his push to reverse the decision made by politicians.
“We fought hard to show (Florida politicians) the return on investment,” President Armstrong said. “We made the argument, and I was the closer, talking to the governor in August of 2022 about the budget. We got the full funding back.”
President Armstrong got a rousing ovation at Wednesday’s luncheon when he mentioned that victory.
But he was just getting started in his talk to the assembled business leaders of Miami Lakes. Crediting former football coach Lou Holtz, President Armstrong focused on leadership.
“Number one, a leader must have vision,” President Armstrong said. “Number two, a leader must have a plan to implement that vision. Number three, a leader must lead by example. Number four, a leader must find people with a shared vision. Number five – and this is the toughest one – a leader must hold people accountable.”
President Armstrong’s leadership at STU has helped produce significant results across the board.
The goal at STU is to graduate students who go on to become ethical leaders in the global community.
“That’s why I came here,” President Armstrong said. “I started the first ethical leadership program in the country – Bachelor’s and Master’s level programs at Thomas More, my previous diocesan university.
“There’s only eight of those (diocesan universities) left in the country, and I’ve now served at two of them (Thomas More and STU).”
President Armstrong then joked: “That (service) will most likely be the only way I get to heaven.”
The audience laughed as President Armstrong again connected with his audience.
Then, Armstrong proudly spoke about how STU students can now earn a Bachelor’s degree, aMaster’s degree, and a Ph.D. in Ethical Leadership.
President Armstrong said STU’s student-created title for its 2020-to-2025 strategic plan is “Limitless”, a slogan he once thought to be too bold.
But, President Armstrong said, STU is living up to that lofty standard, providing limitless opportunities for its students.
To provide those opportunities, finances are vital, and the bottom line at STU shows that there wereroughly 3,800 total students at the school when President Armstrong arrived in 2018.
The headcount is now more than 7,000 students.
Indeed, STU’s assets, President Armstrong said, have increased during that span from $87 million toroughly $200 million.
“Our next big project is building our fourth new residence hall,” President Armstrong said while referencing the rise in enrollment. “We recently opened ‘New Hall,’ which has 300 beds, and a new dining hall.
“We’re going to build a new residence hall with 535 beds, an eight-lane bowling alley and a bar.”
The goal is to continue to grow, and President Armstrong said the plan is to build a new College of Nursing and Health Sciences building.
STU’s nursing program has grown from 13 nursing students when President Armstrong arrived, to more than 900 now.
“There’s a need for more than 60,000 nurses in the state of Florida alone,” President Armstrong said. “So, I’m asking for a new building.”
President Armstrong said STU also started an athletic-training program, which is also filling a void. The military, he said, is hiring 4,000 athletic trainers this year.
A new Admissions building at the Gus Machado School of Business is another project PresidentArmstrong hopes to complete, as well as an academic facility with an ethical leadership tower.
There were more plans President Armstrong discussed on Wednesday, such as the $10-million naming rights to STU’s Benjamin L. Crump College of Law, as well as the relatively new Fashion Merchandising program.
“Hopefully,” President Armstrong said toward the end of his presentation, “we have lived up to our strategic plan, ‘STU Limitless.’
“But we’re not done yet. We want to become the premier Catholic university in the South. That’s going to take a lot of work. How do we do that? We have to seek excellence.”
With President Armstrong, of course, there are always more goals, more projects … more vision.
“This is one of my heroes,” Rizo said while introducing President Armstrong. “President Armstrong is a rare individual. There is no veneer with him. He is heart and soul.”
In fact, it was perfect.