When Diane McFarlin was 16, she applied for a summer job at the Daily Highlander, a local paper in her small Florida hometown, Lake Wales.
She expected to be a receptionist, but to her surprise, she was hired as a full-time reporter. By August, she was covering city council and police activity.
“It affirmed for me what I wanted my life's work to be,” McFarlin said. “It was obvious that I wasn't going to change my mind. I wanted to be a newspaper woman.”
Over 40 years later, McFarlin now serves as the dean of UF’s College of Journalism and Communications — and she has just been named a member of Florida Trend Magazine’s Florida 500 list, a yearly inventory of the state’s most influential executives in different economic districts.
“It's a collective award, because I'm standing on a lot of sturdy shoulders, and I have a lofty perch at the University of Florida,” she said. “This has been a wonderful year for me and for the college.”
Since becoming Dean in 2013, McFarlin created the college’s Professional Advising and Teaching Hub, or PATH office, for advising, financial aid, study abroad and other student services in 2013. In 2014, she established the Agency, a professionally-led and student-run communications business.
The college has also expanded its research initiatives under her leadership. Its current focus is the “trust consortium,” which are several research projects addressing the public’s distrust of media, government and business.
McFarlin didn’t enter the college with a background in academic research, however. She served at the Sarasota Herald-Tribune as the city editor, managing editor, executive editor and publisher, and was the head editor of the Gainesville Sun.
When she was the Sarasota Herald-Tribune’s publisher in 2000, McFarlin also partnered with the Community Foundation of Sarasota County to found the Season of Sharing Fund, which is a pool of money to help low-income families facing homelessness. The fund has now raised more than $20 million, McFarlin said.
Matthew Sauer, current executive editor of the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, said the Fund speaks to McFarlin’s kind heart. He’s known her since 1993 when she hired him at the paper, and she continues to be his mentor to this day.
“Diane is all about the truth, even when it is uncomfortable, and I have seen her manage very difficult situations when our reporting was seriously ruffling feathers,” he wrote in an email. “She is one of the smartest, most well-spoken and poised people you will ever meet.”
Amanda Bradshaw, a 28-year-old UF advertising doctoral student and member of McFarlin’s graduate student advisory council, appreciates the personal attention that McFarlin gives students. She once saw her in line at the Hub, and McFarlin took the time to talk with her even though it was her lunch break, Bradshaw said.
“I don't think every college and every dean does such a good job of that personal connection with the students and faculty,” Bradshaw said.
McFarlin said she believes the College of Journalism and Communications has a “cutting-edge curriculum,” and she wants to continue the school’s progressive approach to education.
“I love being around students,” she said. “There's so much optimism in our environment. We're all looking to the future.”
Correction: This article was updated to reflect that McFarlin’s research initiative is called the Trust Consortium. The Alligator previously reported differently.