Dean Colson wears his passion for FIU on his sleeve—even in a sticky situation.
Case in point: At the monumental matchup last football season of crosstown rivals FIU and the University of Miami, the UM alumnus cheered on the Panthers from an FIU box seat.
“I have nothing but fondness for the University of Miami,” says Colson, a partner at the Coral Gables law firm Colson Hicks Eidson who earned his JD from the private institution in 1977 and has over the years distinguished himself as head of its board of trustees as well as for other service to the school. “I root for the University of Miami. But I don’t root for them against FIU.”
A past president of the Dade County Bar Association, Colson has more than 30 years of leadership experience serving the citizens of Florida, including as a special adviser on higher education issues to Governor Charlie Crist and an appointee to the Florida Supreme Court Judicial Nominating Commission and Florida’s Commission on Ethics. Nationally, he has served on Standing Rules Committee of the Federal Courts and as a liaison member to the Appellate Rules Committee. He chaired the 1995 Super Bowl XXIX Host Committee and headed the 2003 Orange Bowl Committee.
A former chairman of the Florida State University System Board of Governors, Colson in 2017 was appointed to the FIU Board of Trustees, a body responsible for strategic planning and critical oversight. When Colson took the reins this summer, he made clear his unwavering commitment to help the university soar even higher in a community that he loves.
“We are becoming more important every year for South Florida,” he says of an institution that now confers more than 16,000 degrees annually. “In the past decade we became the engine that is driving South Florida.”
The following reflects comments from a recent interview and remarks Colson made at a meeting of the board and university leadership (full text of which can be read here).
Where do you see FIU right now as an institution, and where is it going?
I think FIU is poised to be one of the truly great public universities in the country. We’re in an excellent geographic location. We’re in a place where people want to move and live. It’s an exciting town, and it’s become one of the iconic cities of the world. That wasn’t true 50 years ago. We have tremendous interest in this community in things like the environment, the arts and engineering. So I think we are poised to exploit all that, and we have world-class leaders in select areas that will be game-changers for FIU and South Florida.
Most importantly, we are producing the workforce of South Florida. We are graduating the teachers of South Florida. We are graduating the city and county administrators that run our community. They are FIU grads.
You’ve lived your whole life in Miami. What made you stay?
I’m very bullish on our community. I think we are decades ahead in the way that we have transitioned to become a multicultural community
My dad was born in Miami in 1924. I was born here in 1952 and went to public schools that were segregated. It was in seventh grade before I went to school with African Americans. It was also a time of the exodus from Cuba, when all of a sudden there would be kids next to you in class who didn’t speak English. It was a time of enormous change. Some of it wasn’t easy. But we went through the transitions. And we still have transitions ahead. I couldn't be prouder of where we have gotten to.
What are your goals and priorities as chairman?
I want FIU to be focused on becoming a Top 50 public school. I say that not because there is something magic about a U.S. News & World Report ranking, but because to get there a lot of good things have to happen. We have to continue what has been going on for almost a decade—better grad rates, improved retention, increased NIH and NSF research funding, a better student-faculty ratio, additions to our faculty that are young stars as well as older academy members, and increased fundraising.
I want our terrific story to be told around the country, but I also want our local media to understand how great we are so everyone in town recognizes FIU as the community treasure that it is. Everyone on our campus should be so proud to say I am part of FIU. I know I am.
You’ve met with students on campus (before the pandemic). What do you have to say to them specifically about these grand plans?
I want to do all of this while maintaining the same degree of access and diversity that our student body enjoys today. I want to do all of this while ensuring that every student who graduates leaves here with some understanding of history and civics, has read some literature, has been exposed to lots of people of different backgrounds and faiths, and has developed a sense of pride in their school, their community and country. I want to do all of this while ensuring that we maintain an open dialogue on the problems of racial injustice in America and in Miami, and that FIU is a problem solver and a leader in making our community a better place.
Board of Trustees members are not compensated for their time and efforts on behalf of the university. How do you encourage others in the community to step up?
The work we do is critically importantly to South Florida. There are not many organizations so meaningful as FIU. I have found very few things in my life as satisfying as spending time with faculty and students. I want the Board of Trustees at FIU to be the most sought-after seat in Miami, and I think it will be very soon. We make it fun to be a trustee.