Digital media is the technology fueling the city-partnered move by the University of Central Florida into the downtown space formerly known as the Expo Centre. The city's white elephant will soon be home to UCF's School of Film & Digital Media, and occupancy could start in a month.

Considering the expediency of the project – contracts were only signed on Oct. 11 – it seems odd that the people in the film division at UCF were not aware of the move until 10 days after the lease was signed. It was on Oct. 21 that the film faculty met with Terry J. Frederick, associate dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, who's pulling double duty as interim director of the School of Film & Digital Media. Frederick was tapped for the position after Sterling Van Wagenen left in July after five years on the job.

Tenured film professor Charles Harpole says that meeting with Frederick was the first time the administration discussed the Expo deal with him and his colleagues. "A proposed or an actual move to the Expo Centre for all instructional purposes came as a surprise to the `film` faculty," says Harpole. "We were presented the deal pretty much as a fait accompli."

Harpole says faculty members bristled at the idea that decisions – about facility renovations and logistics and such – had already been made without an opportunity for the faculty to weigh in. Not all of the film division can be relocated downtown immediately, and there is concern about the department working with students in two locations, he says.

But the problems in the film division go much deeper.

Also at that Oct. 21 meeting, Phil Peters, the film division head, announced he was quitting, and returning to the digital teaching staff. Peters is the eighth person in 14 years to step down from a top position in the UCF film department – including Van Wagenen – leaving faculty and students to wonder what's going on. (Van Wagenen, on sabbatical until January, was unavailable for comment; he is scheduled to teach in the coming semester.)

"I can't tell you how upset we were when Phil Peters resigned," says Harpole. "We considered whether to vote no-confidence – no confidence in the administration that can't seem to cope with this film program. They just fail left and right to give it some continuity and realistic expectations."

Not only is Peters gone (film faculty member Steve Schlow was named as his replacement) and the transfer downtown solidified, but the fate of the start-up film graduate program is also in question. "The faculty has worked for about three years to write and create master's-level degree programs in film and digital media," says Harpole. "That program was … finally submitted to the UCF governing board and approved just a few weeks ago. Unfortunately, now I am told that … `UCF Provost Terry` Hickey had withdrawn the funding request for that master's program. So, at present, the university is asking our department to start a master's program with no funding."

Plans for a graduate film program are still in place, says Kathryn Lee Seidel, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. "We'll phase that in a bit more slowly, but we'll still have the same program. I don't know what the time frame is for the phase-in. Ask Terry Frederick."

Frederick says the time frame hasn't been established. Clearly the focus is on renovating the Expo Centre and getting moved in to meet deadlines, one of which includes launching the first Florida Interactive Entertainment Academy two-year program in August, with 50 students.

Frederick, 67, built his reputation by establishing UCF's successful computer science program. He says, "Computer science was an outstanding program. But this project has potential for a lot more – to impact people, how they live, work and are entertained. It's one of the most exciting things I've been involved with … we're trying to integrate artists and scientists and technology."

Still, when administrators hired Van Wagenen in 1999, the filmmaker was heralded for his artistic vision and his name cachet. He was the secret weapon that was going to get the students to enroll and the industry to sit up and take notice. Harpole and others still believe in the world-class potential of their program and students.

"The UCF administration has a top-down style, and we, as a faculty, are used to the idea that dictates will come to us from above – and this is just one more dictate from above that we hope we can turn into a positive for education," he says.

Still recent changes at UCF have already swept out the old school of film. And construction crews are already knocking down walls at the new school. They have a fast miracle on order: By January, finish phase one of the renovation as those fresh-scrubbed students – and city officials – will be eager and waiting.

The anchor tenant of downtown UCF is FIEA, UCF's postgraduate video gaming institute that the state legislature funded in May to the tune of $4.2 million. UCF partnered with Electronic Arts – a national leader in the interactive entertainment industry, responsible for the pro football series Madden NFL among its other big hits – for teachers and content. EA's Tiburon studio is in Maitland, home to nearly 500 programmers, graphic artists and game designers. For square-footage, UCF partnered with the city.

At its Oct. 11 meeting, the Orlando City Council agreed to lease the Expo Centre to UCF for $1 annually. Both sides were happy. The city unloaded a money-loser and UCF gained 110,000 square-feet in the heart of downtown. As the city's lease with UCF states: "Recent regional economic studies have indicated that Orlando and central Florida are ripe for the development of a digital media industry cluster, including specific attention on the electronic video gaming." The promise of high-wage jobs raining down on Orlando are ringing dollar signs in optimists' eyes – $80,000 a year is the much-touted starting salary in video gaming.

Highlights of the expansion call for a new roof, air conditioning, electrical, acoustical ceiling, flooring and paint, at an estimated cost of $6.3 million. UCF will pony up $1.9 million of that amount. The city's Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA) will fund $4.4 million, which UCF will have to pay back if attendance goals aren't met. The goals require 215 students by 2005, with expectations of 2,705 students by 2011.

If things go right, there's going to be a downtown UCF campus in the new year. Master plans could call for the eventual transfer of all of UCF's arts programs downtown. Add those students to the flock coming to the Florida A&M University College of Law, and Parramore will be a student ghetto in no time. Another problem solved.



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