Eyes on the prize: New leaders at Florida universities
Across Florida, five public universities and a handful of state colleges — along with a number of private schools — installed new presidents over the past year or two.
John Kelly wants to make FAU America’s fastest-improving university.
By Amy Martinez
For Florida Atlantic University, 2013 was a tough year. Mary Jane Saunders had resigned as president amid several controversies, including the school’s decision to sell the naming rights to its football stadium to a private prison company. The company ultimately withdrew its offer in the face of protests by faculty and students Change Agent John Kelly wants to make FAU America’s fastest-improving university. By Amy Martinez and outcry in the community.
Meanwhile, only 40% of students were graduating within six years, and the state was threatening to withhold nearly $7 million in funding.
In March 2014, the school turned to John Kelly, who became FAU’s seventh president. Kelly and the school are trying to put FAU on a sounder course: The school has hired 26 academic advisers and invested in new technology to identify students at risk of dropping out. It also raised admission standards and created a summer boot camp for students who are borderline college-ready.
In March, FAU tied the University of West Florida as the state’s sixth-best performing public university based on a variety of factors, including student retention and graduation and post-college job prospects. A year ago, it ranked 10th.
Most notably, FAU’s six-year graduation rate improved to 45% from 40%. It recouped half of the money it lost from the state last year and expects to get back the rest in June.
Kelly says he spent his first 100 days familiarizing himself with the university and another 100 or so adjusting operations. He says he didn’t accept the reasons administrators gave for not graduating students — including a large percentage of students who held jobs and claims that a “different kind of student” attended FAU. “In my mind, those were excuses,” he says.
A longtime college administrator, Kelly, 60, came to FAU from Clemson University, where as vice president for economic development he managed a $90-million budget and more than 900 employees. At FAU, he oversees a $700-million-plus budget and more than 3,000 employees at six campuses stretching from Fort Pierce to Dania Beach.
Kelly points to several recent developments as additional signs FAU is on a better course:
In September, FAU partnered with the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology to enable its medical students to take courses at the prestigious Israeli university. Students from Technion also may travel to Florida to study at FAU.
In December, the Schmidt family of Boca Raton donated $16 million to FAU for a new academic and athletic center, which will include a wellness center, sports medicine program and indoor football practice field.
In March, FAU announced that local partners Max Planck Florida and Scripps Research Institute will help create new degree programs and transform the Jupiter campus into a bioscience hub.
FAU considers itself the most culturally and ethnically diverse of Florida’s public universities, with more than half of its students representing a minority group or coming from abroad. “About 95% of our students are from Florida, and about 70% are from south Florida,” Kelly says. “Our goal is to get students from other parts of Florida. If you’re not from south Florida, you probably look at things a little different.”