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Former CENTCOM commander wants USF to educate officers

Mark Parker

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Retired Gen. Frank McKenzie speaks at the St. Petersburg Conference on World Affairs at the USF St. Petersburg campus Tuesday afternoon. Screengrab.

Retired Marine Gen. Kenneth F. “Frank” McKenzie, former commander of U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM), decided to continue his decorated career in public service at the University of South Florida.

McKenzie concluded the opening day of the St. Petersburg Conference on World Affairs (CWA) by announcing plans to establish a nationwide graduate degree program for military officers at the school. The 11th annual event, which began Tuesday and runs through Friday at USF St. Petersburg, provides a forum for international experts to educate, engage and empower community stakeholders.

McKenzie, who also reached the upper echelons of geopolitics as director of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, is one of the few locals among the conference’s over 50 speakers. In June 2022, USF’s leadership announced he would lead the recently established Global and National Security Institute (GNSI).

“We want to begin to bring officers into USF to get a master’s degree – that’s done in elite public universities across the United States,” McKenzie said. “And USF is, actually, an elite public university.

“They (officers) all don’t need to go to Stanford, and they all don’t need to go to Harvard. And given a choice, I think many of them would prefer to come to Tampa.”

Gen. Frank McKenzie ended his brief retirement from public service to join USF. Photo courtesy of centcom.mil.

McKenzie and Dr. Thomas W. Smith, who moderated the fireside chat, noted that USF recently joined the Association of American Universities (AAU). The prestigious, invitation-only consortium of leading research institutions now features 71 members, including most of the Ivy League.

McKenzie pledged to establish the officer program and a scholar-in-residence initiative. Smith, a political science professor and association dean of the Judy Genshaft Honors College at USFSP, was once a visiting scholar at Harvard University’s Center for Middle Eastern Studies.

McKenzie also hopes to implement a U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) program at USF. The organization, created by President John F. Kennedy, oversees myriad humanitarian efforts to save lives, reduce poverty and promote democracy.

“I think we vastly underestimate the importance of USAID,” McKenzie added. “And what it means to our missions abroad.”

Smith said CWA organizers hope to bolster their partnership with the GNSI. Institute officials collaboratively work to support economic, political, health, infrastructure, environmental, defense and human security initiatives.

As he did in a previous Catalyst interview, McKenzie stressed the unique opportunities provided by having a leading research university in a metropolitan area with two combatant commands. Tampa’s MacDill Air Force Base serves as CENTCOM’s headquarters and also hosts the U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM).

“No other city in the United States shares that distinction,” McKenzie said. “No other city in the world shares that distinction. So, it’s a very important opportunity that the university needs to capitalize on.”

He said much work remains before the GNSI, now in its second year, accomplishes its goals. Those include becoming a “convening authority” at conferences like CWA and informing local, state, national and international policymakers.

McKenzie said the institute would also function “on the boundary of technology and policy.” That includes building upon existing cybersecurity, intelligence, criminology and analytics programs.

McKenzie split his time between Tampa Bay and forward operating bases in typically war-torn countries as CENTCOM commander. He grew fond of the area and said he relished the opportunity to work in a diverse and challenging environment with young people.

In addition to overseeing the GNSI, McKenzie also assumed leadership of the state-sponsored Cyber Florida, also known as the Florida Center for Cybersecurity. He previously expressed an affinity for working around “good, bright and inquisitive people” and noted that “there are a lot of them here at USF.”

McKenzie said Tuesday that he sometimes misses interacting with the President and Secretary of Defense and turning orders into military actions. “It’s a pretty rarified atmosphere – you get used to it,” he said.

“It is addictive after a while because you like to feel that you’re in the middle of something,” McKenzie added. “But I was ready to go … they didn’t have to carry me kicking and screaming over the side. I was ready to go on and do other things, and these are the things I’m doing now.”

For more information on the Conference on World Affairs, visit the website here. To watch live-streamed presentations, visit the website here.

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2 Comments

2 Comments

  1. Avatar

    Stuart McCall

    February 8, 2024at11:43 am

    This sounds like a good idea but is not based on the reality. As a retired senior officer his statement on USF being recognized as Stanford or other prestigious institutions is wrong. Given the choice of a fully funded degree in residence I chose Yale. This is a good idea that should be considered but the draw will be local military and officers not receiving fully funded options.

  2. Avatar

    John Donovan

    February 7, 2024at4:20 pm

    Excellent example of collaboration.

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