In 2018, as she was preparing to join the College of the Arts as its incoming dean, multi-hyphenate dancer, choreographer, educator, researcher and arts administrator, Onye Ozuzu, told University of Florida News:
“I have dedicated much of my work as a dance artist to cultivating space for diverse dance forms to exist in pluralist relationship to one another … Choreography is composition, composition in collaboration with humans and their energy in time and space; it is systems thinking, as is leadership.”
As the public land grant university serving Florida for 170 years and counting, tradition thrums the heartbeat of UF. It is the throat-thumping bass of the Gator Marching Band’s “Big Boom” and the swell of orange and blue across the Swamp on gameday. Tradition also undergirds the university-wide shared values of excellence, inclusion, community, discovery and innovation that drive Gators to ‘Go Greater’ and inspire them to propel moonshot ideas into realities.
When a moment calls to infuse existing traditions with renewed vitality, or for new traditions to emerge, a trailblazer must first step forward to ignite them: the composer must arrange symphonies for the orchestra to perform, the football coach must strategize what plays the team will execute on the field, the mathematician must chart the formulas that send rockets to the moon. The choreographer devises systems of movement for the dancer, or dancers, to compel their bodies into perspective-shifting forms that offer new ways of seeing and being in the world.
With Dean Ozuzu at the helm, COTA has diverged from and decentered many of the traditional ways of operating in higher education; instead, charting a strategic path into the future guided by a dean who thinks—and moves institutions forward—like a dancer.
Piper Call, College of the Arts Executive Assistant to the Dean since 2010, remembers the first instance when Dean Ozuzu’s unconventional leadership electrified the COTA dean’s office: the moment she set foot in the room.
“Dean Ozuzu took her shoes off for her presentation as a dean candidate and that audacious act really caught my attention. She was physically and mentally fast on her feet, fearless, honest and engaging. Other staff members around me were seeing her as I did. We whispered to each other, ‘she’s the one,’” says Call.
“If you ask me about my work,” Call adds, “I may tell you that I do a thousand different things; that I dwell in the rabbit hole of mundane, myriad and disparate tasks. Dean Ozuzu invited me to take off my shoes and climb out of the rabbit hole.”
In 2019-2020, working groups consisting of staff, faculty and students throughout the college engaged with the planning, and penning of the Systemic Resilience: COTA Meta-Strategy, 2021-2025, a six-pillar strategic plan designed to “position the College of the Arts as a creative catalyst, able to respond to—and drive—society’s rapidly changing contexts.”
UF College of the Arts saw a 44% increase in faculty between 2019 and 2023, including the hiring of an AI in the Arts faculty cohort. Under Ozuzu’s deanship, COTA also experienced significant growth in sponsored research and philanthropic support; revised every undergraduate major across the college, including launching six degree specializations across three majors; developed new graduate and undergraduate certificates and a forthcoming BS degree in Music, Business, and Entrepreneurship; and launched the Center for Arts, Migration, and Entrepreneurship—a first-of-its-kind hub for research and arts entrepreneurship driven by the creative and cultural economics of migratory and diasporic communities.
Closing out five years of transformational leadership, COTA’s trailblazing Dean Ozuzu will conclude her deanship on December 31, 2023.
Stories published in COTA’s In the Loop News often highlight the outstanding research and creative work of the college’s faculty and students. For this story, we asked the people who are typically ‘behind the scenes’—staff in the Dean’s Office—to share their insights about working with Dean Ozuzu, and how her visionary leadership has impacted the College of the Arts across multiple fronts.
COTA Meta-Strategy pillars support the people who shape the future
“UF bringing Dean Ozuzu here was such a huge accomplishment: first of our university, as the flagship in the State, to put people first and to put community first,” says COTA Associate Dean of Research and Strategic Initiatives, Sophia K. Acord.
“When she came to COTA, we invested from the get-go in the people, and we invested in the spaces where those people can talk to each other and bring their networks and communities and resources to bear. And it is because of this that we have projects like SPARC352. We have millions of dollars of funding. We have new student majors. We have new donors. All because the people are first,” Acord says.
“Pillar I of our Meta-Strategy places ‘Access, Equity, and Inclusion as Functional Catalysts’ … and the ramifications of that are felt everywhere in our college,” she continues.
“We can do more forms of sponsored research because we think in terms of AEI in the nature of the work that we support, and in the resources that work requires. We can make student improvement plans because we think of more students, we involve them at the table; we pass the megaphone and the podiums to them. We think of budgeting differently. We think of neurodiversities. When COTA ran its internal Strategic Opportunity Fund in 2021-22—we opened it up to anyone to apply. Rather than thinking that we need to have a model where we [the administrators] know what the college needs, we let the college tell us what it needs. That’s all because AEI is the catalyst.”
Pillars II through VI of the COTA Meta-Strategy, while standalone initiatives, build upon the people-powered core of Pillar I. They are: Adaptive and Distinctive Curricula (II); Shared Governance (III); Student Experience Lifecycle (IV); Research and Creative Work (V); and Resource Cultivation and Allocation (VI).
Information about each of these pillars can be found under the Implementation tab at: Systemic Resilience: COTA Meta-Strategy, 2021-2025.
“The principle of horizontality that the dean brought—that you're an assistant professor, you're a staff member, you're a full Professor—we care about what you all know together, equally; you all get the same say. Dean Ozuzu sent the message that everyone will be heard; that everyone must be heard. That’s a big deal,” says Associate Dean Acord.
Strategic hiring impacts faculty, staff culture across the college
Coinciding with Dean Ozuzu’s arrival, the College of the Arts developed and implemented a Strategic Hiring Plan that consolidates college-wide resource tracking, prioritization processes, and facilitates an inclusive and multi-expert review process for decision-making.
New strategic hiring practices employed by the college during UF’s Faculty 500 hiring wave, including the establishment of a faculty hiring meta-narrative, optimized COTA’s capacity to recruit and hire top candidates.
“Dean Ozuzu spotted the opportunity to further define who we are and call faculty with certain specific qualifications across disciplines to us, which resulted in the college writing the meta-narrative—and that resulted in the level of ‘changemaker’ applicants we had,” says COTA Director of Human Resources, Barb Mitola.
“In recognizing the opportunity of hiring that many faculty at once, she focused and expanded the level of changemaking already thriving in the college. That’s huge because these people are here, collaborating, and changing us.”
Mitola notes that the hiring wave resulted in a more than 10% increase in racial and ethnic diversity at the college, and that gender demographics shifted from 58% male and 42% female in 2018-2019 to 49.25% male and 50.75% female representation as of the 2022-2023 academic year.
Mitola cites the establishment of a ‘provocateur’ role in the faculty search process among the most innovative practices Dean Ozuzu introduced in the college. The provocateur, Mitola explains, plays the role of a more sophisticated “devil’s advocate” on search committees: they are someone from outside the discipline who can question presumed qualifications that may have been historically predefined by the discipline leading the search, and help other committee members from within that discipline identify perspectives and values that might otherwise go unseen without the assistance of an outsider provocateur’s eye.
“Dean Ozuzu brought the [concept of] the provocateur from the dance world,” Mitola notes, citing a choreographed work where dancers who were dressed in red, referred to as ‘provocateurs,’ would enter the audience and disrupt the performance.
In many ways, Mitola says that Dean Ozuzu, herself, acted as a provocateur who shook up COTA’s administrative structures.
“She has a unique ability to spot opportunities, I think, because she questions systems. She looks at them like someone who's unfamiliar with them, and therefore can spot areas that have gaps—and gaps mean opportunity,” says Mitola.
Chief among those opportunities was uplifting the expertise of college staff.
“She started her work here with the profound and compelling ‘why?’ … with the underlying idea that there is value out there in the world that we are missing out on because of the blinders that we have, and the systems we uphold that have their own blinders,” Mitola says.
“She did not experience systems the way that we were experiencing and operating in them. She asked for more and different things from the people who were her experts in these areas. And that, in and of itself, was a shift that changed some of the staff expectations and roles in the Dean's Office.
She was the first person in my 20 years at UF who referred to my level of knowledge as ‘expertise.’ Talk about upping somebody's game just by saying those words! She treated us as if we had expertise to offer (because we did), allowed us to develop that expertise further, and helped us, and our faculty colleagues, see more of the places we needed to share it. Those are profound shifts in how we do our work and how we see our value that will never go away,” Mitola says.
Sponsored research growth and COTA artists on the international stage
COTA’s sponsored research numbers grew from $102,000 to $2.3 million during Dean Ozuzu’s years leading the college.
COTA funders and research partners on the national and international scale include the Algorand Foundation, the Mellon Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Science Foundation and the World Health Organization.
“If you look at the particular grants our faculty are getting—NEA research labs; the EpiArts Lab; NSF work in dance and STEM learning; Mellon work with artists finding ways to activate community resilience; blockchain research—those are places where the federal government and our nation’s leading charitable foundations are saying ‘the Arts need to be at the table to solve the stickiest wicked problems, be they scientific in origin, or environmental, developmental, about equity, about political civil discourse,’” Associate Dean Acord says.
“COTA employs people who are ready and prepared to be part of those conversations—and federal agencies are realizing that they need us,” she adds.
Arts researchers at COTA also have an increasing presence on transdisciplinary teams at the University of Florida, and in November 2023, two projects led by the College of the Arts received awards totaling just over $1 million in the latest round of strategic funding projects from the University of Florida President’s Office to increase this presence.
Commissions, invitations, publications, and productions by faculty pursuing arts research have also grown, with national and international awards and recognitions highlighting their field-changing work. COTA faculty are Fulbright Scholars, conducting symphonies at Carnegie Hall, exhibitors in the Venice Biennale, Rome Prize winners, and leading global voices in AI technologies and ethics and the emerging field of Arts in Public Health—to list just a few examples.
“Being in an R1 university is very different from being in an arts conservatory. From a research perspective, Dean Ozuzu really leaned into what's possible for the arts at an R1 university—while also keeping close and reminding others what the arts do across the spectrum in a traditionally conceived conservatory sense: making new dance, making new exhibitions, composing new music. In other words, not art in service to other things, but art on art’s stage, internationally,” says Associate Dean Acord.
“UF has long been in front of global science audiences. COTA is making a case for the prestige value of getting UF in front of global arts audiences,” she adds.
Heightened philanthropic support
During Ozuzu’s deanship, philanthropic support from the College of the Arts alumni and friends for scholarships, academic programs, and research increased from $1.6 million to $6 million. The College of the Arts has also increased its presence on the UF Foundation National Board.
“Dean Ozuzu's tenure has been marked by visionary leadership, strategic brilliance, human-centered decision-making and unmatched fundraising success,” says COTA Director of Advancement, Lula Dawit.
“She has skillfully connected with donors and remarkably inspired our COTA community, setting a new standard for engagement and enthusiasm. Her ability to foster connections and ignite passion has been a transformative force, bringing a fresh and unparalleled approach to building relationships and achieving major philanthropic milestones.”
Philanthropic highlights from 2018-2023 include:
- Longtime patron and alumnus of the School of Art + Art History Gary R. Libby provided naming support for the Gary R. Libby University Galleries, as well as establishing endowments impacting nearly every department within the School of Art + Art History, including graphic design, museum studies, and art education.
- Funders including the Pabst Steinmetz Foundation, Bloomberg Philanthropies, and Americans for the Arts have provided over $1M in support for the groundbreaking EpiArts Lab, the nation’s leading research engine for arts in public health research.
- In 2022, the family of School of Theatre + Dance alum Margaret Bachus created the Margaret Trimm Bachus Endowment for Innovation and Impact in the School of Theatre & Dance and the Margaret Trimm Bachus Endowed Scholarship Fund to honor her legacy and support the next generation of students.
- After more than twenty years of strategy, consultation, and relationship building, the School of Music received $45 million state appropriations allocation in the Spring 2023 legislative session for a building annex.
- The family of Tom Petty established the Tom Petty Endowment for Guitars and Innovation in Spring 2023, celebrating the UF School of Music conferral of an honorary doctorate degree on the late rockstar hailing from Gainesville, Fla.
- In 2020, University of Florida Gator Band alumni Rolf and Anne Kuhns made an estate gift with two major endowments: one to create the band’s first endowed marching band directorship, and the second endowed chair at COTA, and the other to support band student scholarships.
“Having had the privilege of working alongside Dean Ozuzu, I can confidently say that I am a better human for the experience,” says Dawit.
“Her intelligence, sharp strategic instinct, kindness, mentorship and humor has left an indelible mark on me, shaping not just my professional skills, but also contributing to my growth as an individual. I am forever grateful for the lessons learned and the positive influence she has had on my journey. Thanks for bringing me back home.”
Zero-based budgeting methodology strengthens strategic spending
The College of the Arts fiscal team worked with Dean Ozuzu and directors of COTA’s six academic units to implement a zero-based budgeting (ZBB) methodology that facilitates increased transparency, budget clarity, and alignment of resources with goals across the college.
“ZBB allows the units to make more deliberate and strategic choices within their budget,” says COTA Director of Finance, Anika Nathan.
Nathan explains that the goal of a zero-based budgeting methodology is to “start over” every fiscal year at zero—meaning that every unit must determine and request a strategic yearly budget that aligns with its goals. The unit is expected to use the budget requested for the unit’s needs within that fiscal year. Unused funding will be used to help fund the next fiscal year’s budget.
She notes that ZBB fosters transparency across all levels of the college, starting in the Dean’s Office and down to COTA’s schools, centers and institute, which are each responsible for outlining and managing their budgets in alignment with the college’s strategic goals.
“There is a shift in higher ed that is moving away from historic budgeting models, especially as resources shrink, nationwide, for state institutions. That means we need to come up with more creative and strategic ways to better serve our community—and I think this is one of the things, by moving toward zero-based budgeting, that we’ve been able to do well at COTA,” Nathan says.
Echoing her Dean’s Office colleagues, Nathan credits Dean Ozuzu’s willingness to lean into and nurture staff expertise as a lasting gain for the college.
“I've been at COTA for seven years, but I've been in business management and finance since 1999 and I’ve been in higher ed for 15+ years. UF is my third institution. And I can unequivocally say this: working under Dean Ozuzu’s leadership has by far provided the most growth I've had in any institution where I’ve worked,” Nathan says.
“She has not only transformed how the College of the Arts analyzes its resources, but she has also, speaking on a personal level, helped me see through a more strategic lens than I ever have before.”
New and redesigned academic programs and reimagining Creative B
Dean Ozuzu supported COTA faculty in developing and redesigning curricula across the college to meet 21st century outcomes.
“The profound impact of Dean Ozuzu's leadership on our college can be seen in the deep and broad work our faculty have done on curriculum during the last five years,” says Associate Dean for Academic and Student Affairs, Jennifer Setlow.
“Faculty hired under the meta-narrative have led or participated in revising every undergraduate major in the college, the launch of two new graduate degrees, the development and (pending final approval from the Board of Governors) the launch of the first new undergraduate degree in the School of Music in over 50 years—and more,” Associate Dean Setlow says.
“The work done across the college as part of the Meta-Strategy implementation included a multi-year investigation into the Student Experience Lifecycle, the development and launch of an improvement plan to address concerns raised, and faculty development and adoption of a set of Common Learning Goals across the college. These goals, which are designed to assist with programmatic evaluation, cover discipline-specific skills, professional skills, career planning, lifelong learning, and community engagement.”
“And we are particularly grateful,” Associate Dean Setlow notes, “for how the Lucinda Lavelli Business of the Arts Fund that was established by Dean Ozuzu’s predecessor, Dean Emerita Lavelli, is allowing us to provide opportunities to better support these Common Learning Goals—particularly in the areas of professional skills and career planning.”
The College of the Arts Creative B Summer Program, established in 2010 by ‘Wonder Woman of the Arts’ Dean Emerita Lucinda Lavelli with support from the UF Office of the Provost, also seized a timely opportunity to evolve as the program entered its second decade.
“In the post-COVID invitation to reimagine Creative B, Dean Ozuzu forefronted undergraduate student experiences with visiting guest artists—again, showing not only that UF can be the stage where art is created for the world, but that it can springboard from here,” says Associate Dean Acord.
Acord cites the Creative B partnership with New York Live Arts and the ISLAA partnership with UF’s Gary R. Libby University Galleries as “putting our partnerships with leading arts organizations at the center of what we can offer to students.”
The reimagined Creative B thematic program will culminate in the 2024 production of biennial summit around the two-year theme of Recovery Through the Arts, centering UF as a national hub of innovation and emergent interdisciplinary creativity.
“The arts make up a large area of the work that needs to be done to address our world nation, Florida, our region—all the levels of health issues across the globe,” says Associate Dean Acord.
“The arts are an entry point to engage with research in multiple other disciplines, which is why Recovery Through the Arts is a place where we are centering how the arts drive global research initiatives. It puts arts research on a stage to show it, and to put it in dialogue with other research … We make new knowledge possible. We make better research questions possible. And we certainly make better applications of research possible,” Acord says.
Launch of the Center for Arts, Migration, and Entrepreneurship
Dean Ozuzu arrived at the College of the Arts in 2018, coinciding with the launch of the UF Moonshot Initiative spearheaded by Provost Joseph Glover. This bold, $17M initiative was a university-wide call for ‘moonshot’ projects “aimed at solving some of society’s most urgent problems while redefining the role of a land-grant university for the 21st century.”
Under Dean Ozuzu’s leadership, the College of the Arts’ Moonshot proposal, Migration Redefined: Arts, Diaspora and Entrepreneurship in the 21st Century, yielded the establishment of the college’s Center for Arts, Migration, and Entrepreneurship (CAME).
Noting that the State of Florida “is poised for significant growth from migratory and diasporic populations,” the proposal cited the Disney Corporation’s record-breaking 2018 release of Black Panther as a “a clear example of the impact that engagement with the aesthetic and creative values of a cultural diaspora can have,” and noted the influence of Latin and African diasporic music and dance on genres such as jazz, Broadway, hip hop, and swing. These genres are central to American music and dance traditions that developed through the 20th century—and they are exponential drivers of culture and arts economies across the globe to this day.
The Migration Redefined: Arts, Diaspora and Entrepreneurship in the 21st Century moonshot proposal stated COTA’s clear aim to define the University of Florida as a “hub of expertise to position migrant/diaspora communities’ artistic and creative production as cultural and economic engines.”
“The intent was to experiment with our own value systems, as people working within dominant systems, and what it looks like to put world views and systems of value in conversation with each other,” says Anthony Kolenic, who served as COTA’s Associate Dean for Research and Strategic Initiatives, 2015-2021.
Since its establishment in 2019, CAME has onboarded more than 50 affiliate faculty, hosted conferences on arts entrepreneurship and AI featuring thought leaders from across the globe, secured local and international research partnerships and significant external funding, and from 2019-2023, the center hosted its inaugural Maker in Residence.
The Maker in Residence program serves as an incubator for a ‘Maker’ whose work is consciously located within a cultural diaspora and engaged with the contexts, impacts, and opportunities of migration and entrepreneurship in creative fields including but not limited to: art, design, music, theatre, creative writing, dance and/or film as they intersect with emerging technologies—specifically, AI.
“CAME and its Maker in Residence put COTA, as a future-leaning arts college, in a position to ask some really interesting questions about itself: about the ways that we teach, conduct research, and interact and partner with our publics—and in a way that not many other institutions are pursuing,” Kolenic says.
“We ran at some challenging concepts, like entrepreneurship, which has a very specific meaning in the Academy. We wanted to allow the real meaning of that concept to be defined by the people who come in. And that’s part of the beauty of it: parts of the project are making us ask amazing questions; changing us. That's actually the first outcome. And then: everything else that emerges out of that implosion."
The UF Center for Arts, Migration, and Entrepreneurship is now entering its next phase of growth.
The search for CAME’s next Maker in Residence will launch in 2024. In addition to having a central role in shaping the center’s forward-thinking research agenda around artificial intelligence, the Maker in Residence position, in this second multi-year iteration, will include opportunities for students across the broader campus community to engage with the Maker, both in the classroom and through research.
Dean Ozuzu will conclude her tenure leading the College of the Arts at the close of the Fall 2023 semester, shifting her focus in 2024 to her latest project, Space Carcasses: a globe-spanning, interdisciplinary performance that “asserts the body’s relationship to its built environment, particularly spaces that echo with Afro-diasporic forced migrations.”
In an artist statement, Ozuzu writes that a carcass “leaves an imprint of a version of us we are no longer, a ‘skin,’ a container that we have left behind. Like the residue of the body’s presence, the residue of these spaces—the buildings and archways, their volumes and corners, their openness and hidden places—resonate with their layered meanings through time and space.”
At geographically disparate touchpoints in Savannah, Georgia, Rochelle, France, and Northern Nigeria—at sites with complex historic connections to the transatlantic slave trade—Space Carcasses will use 3D sound and visual mapping technologies to “record, re-contextualize, and re-remember these spaces that echo with the impact of the events and experiences they have contained.”
Space Carcasses will make its world premiere at the Bates Dance Festival in Summer 2025. To learn more about this project and Onye Ozuzu’s other dance projects, please visit: www.OzuzuDances.com.
As COTA prepares for its next shift in leadership and approaches a milestone 50th anniversary of the college in 2025, the work laid out by COTA’s leaders across the decades can be deeply felt.
The 2018-2023 deanship of Onye Ozuzu sparked fundamental changes in how the College of the Arts operates—how we view and value ourselves; how we connect, collaborate, and leverage our diverse professional and scholarly expertise across a college that prioritizes its people.
“From the beginning, Dean Ozuzu highly valued how the systemic work of staff is critical to the momentum and manifestation of big picture goals—that not including the systems expertise of staff at the table would be a strategically critical error,” says COTA’s long-running Executive Assistant to the Dean, Piper Call.
“That she understood the advantage of leveraging staff expertise is part of the equation that has resulted in the vast achievements of our college in such a short time,” Call adds.
As the College of the Arts prepares to welcome its next dean, we are eager to see what future our next changemaking leader will direct us toward.
The COTA Meta-Strategy collaboratively penned and implemented under Dean Ozuzu’s leadership places the college community, and its next leader, in a remarkable position to face the challenges faced by arts institutions in the 21st century and beyond. That is to say: nimbly, creatively, and strategically— UF College of the Arts dances forward.