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Eyes on the prize: New leaders at Florida universities

UF's drive for preeminence

Kent Fuchs, who once aspired to the pulpit, now leads UF’s drive for top-10 status.

By Amy Martinez

Kent Fuchs, the University of Florida’s 12th president, recalls his own decision about where to attend college with some amusement.

Fuchs, a 1972 graduate of Killian Senior in Miami, says he wanted to attend the “best possible” college no farther than 1,000 miles from Miami. But he knew nothing about schools in the southeastern U.S. — his family had moved to Florida from Alaska when he was in his teens.

Fuchs (pronounced Fox) says he looked at data that showed the percentage of applicants that each school in the region rejected, figuring that the schools that turned the most people away were the best. He found that Duke University rejected the highest percentage of applicants, and so that’s where he decided to go, without ever visiting the campus or consulting other sources.

“Duke didn’t have the reputation then that it does now. I’d never heard of it,” he says.

Fuchs, an evangelical Christian, wasn’t always on track to become an academic. Before he graduated from Duke with an engineering degree, a pastor in North Carolina encouraged him to attend seminary. And so he enrolled at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in suburban Chicago.

Fuchs says he enjoyed learning and teaching theology but realized he was no Billy Graham. Known for a professorial manner, he often gave sermons using overhead projector transparencies. “I was terrible at preaching. But I was a good educator,” he once said. “I thought maybe I’d work in a university with college students.”

Fuchs went on to earn master’s and doctoral degrees in electrical engineering from the University of Illinois. In 2002, after teaching at Illinois and Purdue, where he headed the electrical and computer engineering school, he became engineering dean at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y.

Fuchs’ time at Cornell established his reputation as a skilled administrator. In 2009, he was named Cornell’s chief academic officer — just as the economy sank into recession. With the school facing a budget deficit of $150 million, he led a strategic planning process that ultimately included downsizing, restructuring and creating a new budget model. Cornell President David Skorton credits Fuchs with ensuring that Cornell emerged from the recession leaner and stronger.

According to Skorton, however, Fuchs’ greatest legacy for Cornell may not be at the school’s main campus in Ithaca, but in Manhattan.

In 2011, under then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg, the city of New York created a competition, open to major universities, to develop a new applied sciences graduate school in Manhattan. The winner, the city promised, would get a 99- year lease on 12 acres on Roosevelt Island and up to $100 million of infrastructure improvements.

Cornell wasn’t favored to win, competing originally against Manhattan-based Columbia and tech powerhouses MIT and Stanford, which became a heavy favorite after MIT withdrew. But as Cornell developed its proposal, Fuchs forged a partnership with the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology, which is known for producing entrepreneurial-minded grads who churn out tech startups.

The partnership added a practical-business dimension to Cornell’s academic heft, and the city selected Cornell’s proposal. Meanwhile, Charles Feeney, founder of the Duty Free Shoppers Group, gave the university $350 million to help pay for the campus.

After a lengthy review process, construction on Cornell’s tech campus began in January 2014, with the new facility expected to open in summer 2017.

“I’ll speak modestly,” says Fuchs, with more than a hint of pride, “but it’s the biggest thing since Cornell was founded.”

Personal touch

Since moving into his office in UF’s Tigert Hall, Fuchs says he’s spent most of his time listening to students, faculty and leaders on campus. He’s taken pains to dispel any notions that an engineer from the Ivy League might lack a personal touch. In February, Fuchs sat in on a Florida history class and wrote about it for the Florida Alligator, UF’s studentrun newspaper. He has amassed more than 4,000 followers on Twitter, where he can be seen taking selfies with students and alumni. On April Fools’ Day, he announced he would be “switching jobs” with head football coach Jim McElwain as part of a prank covered by ESPN.

“It’s important to not take myself too seriously — to be personal and visible,” he says. “It’s good that students know the administration cares about them, and the only way they can know that is if I’m personally there.”

Fuchs says he understands that his main mission is to advance UF toward its pre-eminence goals — chief among them, cracking the top 10 of public universities nationwide. U.S. News & World Report currently ranks UF 14th.

He feels, he says, “considerable” urgency about moving the school up the rankings ladder. Since 2013, the Legislature has given $35 million each to UF and Florida State University to strengthen their academic and research performance. UF has used the money to hire mid-career and distinguished professors in key areas, notably health, computing and life sciences. Together, Fuchs and FSU President John Thrasher went to the Legislature in March to ask for an additional $30 million apiece in pre-eminence funding.

Fuchs says he sees his two main roles as being UF’s “chief communicator” and attracting more money to the school. “The University of Florida is well run. It’s my job to communicate that,” he says.

Fuchs is long accustomed to many in academia viewing him as a curiosity because of his faith. Among his colleagues at Cornell and elsewhere in the Ivy League, he says, “I was the only evangelical Christian I knew.”

He says he feels at home in both the scientific worlds and his community of faith. He believes his background will serve him well in navigating a political world where science is often mistrusted when its methods and conclusions conflict with politicians’ personal religious beliefs.

“I’m very comfortable living in a world with people who have views that are not scientific,” he says. He believes he can help people with strong religious views become more comfortable with science and scientific inquiry.

Fuchs says he thinks Florida can make progress toward top-10 status within just a few years. Reflecting on his alma mater, Fuchs says that just as Duke has become a national and international academic powerhouse in recent years, “I don’t see why the University of Florida can’t do the same.”


FSU looks to John Thrasher to help make it a top-25 school.

By Amy Martinez

In May 2014, former Florida State University President Talbot “Sandy” D’Alemberte nominated then-state Sen. John Thrasher to be FSU’s president, pointing to the prominent Republican legislator’s fundraising ability.

In a letter to the Texas executive recruiter who was leading the presidential search, D’Alemberte acknowledged concerns about Thrasher’s lack of academic credentials and even noted that “in ideal times,” FSU should hire an established scholar.

But FSU, like all Florida universities, had “suffered an extraordinary loss of resources in recent years,” D’Alemberte wrote. “Our first priority now is getting that base funding restored, and John Thrasher is the best person to accomplish this.”

Four months later, FSU’s board of trustees chose Thrasher over three academicians, agreeing that as a career lawyer and politician, he was best suited to bring in more money from both the private and public sectors and boost FSU’s national academic standing. There were plenty of precedents for picking a president with legislative experience: D’Alemberte and his successor, T.K. Weatherell, also had served in the Florida House.

Last November, Thrasher had been on the job only 10 days when a gunman opened fire at FSU’s Strozier Library, wounding three people before being shot and killed by police. A visible presence on campus in the days that followed, Thrasher won praise for helping to restore a sense of normalcy to FSU.

He recently spoke with Florida Trend about his early impressions of the job.

How did your transition from a political to academic world go?

“I had familiarity with my staff, most of them, just from spending a lot of time in Tallahassee. So that part of the transition went well. And then literally 10 days into my presidency, we had the shooting on campus, which was an eye-opening event, I guess in many ways. It certainly wasn’t something I had anticipated. But I think we handled it appropriately and did the right thing for students. Certainly, I think we did the right things for those who were injured and have continued to do so.”

Are you satisfied that the faculty and student body have accepted you?

“I feel comfortable with the faculty. I feel comfortable with the students. There’s probably a segment of each out there who maybe would have preferred someone else — I’ll put it that way. But I think we’ve made some inroads. I’ve tried to reach out to as many faculty members as I can. I try to see some students every single day. That’s part of my goal, to meet with students and hear what they have to say about the issues that concern them.”

FSU and UF each received $20 million in “pre-eminence” state funding last year and $15 million the year before. How has FSU spent the money?

“We’ve hired a number of researchers in different areas that we believe are important — energy and brain health and coastal and marine research. We’ve used our resources to maintain our National High Magnetic Field Laboratory, which is a great asset for Florida State University. The money, basically as I envisioned it when I was in the Legislature, was to increase the kinds of faculty primarily related to the science, technology, engineering and math areas.”

How important are the humanities and liberal arts to FSU?

“We have the No. 1 music school, I believe, in America. We have great theater and other fine arts programs. We still believe strongly that for students who want to come here and major in those areas, they should have every opportunity to do so and receive a quality education.

Conversely, I will tell you that some of the dollars we’ve gotten in the area of pre-eminence we’ve used to hire what we call entrepreneurs-in-residence. Those are individual professors and faculty members who go into these other schools, outside the business school, and primarily give undergraduate students an opportunity to understand aspects of the business culture. Say they want to form a dance studio or create a business teaching music. They have to know fundamentals about business.”

FSU wants to become a top- 25 ranked public university. U.S. News & World Report currently ranks it 43. What is the plan for getting there?

“Resources are a big part of it. It’s not like the Legislature funds us 100%. It’s about 40%. We realize we’ve got to go out and do other things, too, if we’re going to get in the top 25. We started a capital campaign, and it’s a $1-billion campaign. We’re probably 60% there. We’ve given ourselves until 2018 to reach that $1 billion.”

What has surprised you about running a university?

“I wouldn’t say universities are glacial, necessarily, but you do have a number of hoops to jump through before you can get a decision made. I’m trying to break some of that down, to be honest with you. I think we could make decisions a little faster than we have in the past. People understand that’s my style. I certainly want to be informed. But I also don’t want to have an issue go to four, five committees before we make a decision about it.”

John Thrasher, 71

  • Education: Bachelor’s and law degrees from FSU
  • Professional Career: Worked as general counsel for the Florida Medical Association for 20 years and as a partner for the Southern Strategy Group lobbying firm from 2001 to 2009
  • Political Career: Became a state representative in 1992 and was House Speaker from 1998-2000; held a northeast Florida Senate seat from 2009-14; chaired the Republican Party of Florida in 2010; chaired Gov. Rick Scott’s re-election campaign before stepping down last September to become FSU president
  • Military Service: Served in the U. S. Army from 1966-70

Change Agent

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.”

On Track

Florida Polytechnic’s president cites achievements and challenges.

By Mike Vogel

Faculty and administrative offices in the futuristic classroom building at Florida Polytechnic were designed with glass walls to promote collaboration. Even the president’s office has a glass wall, and in April, when university President Randy K. Avent returned from his father’s funeral in North Carolina, he founded it covered with notes of condolence from students and staff.

Florida Poly, the state’s newest and 12th public university, opened just last August to its first 540 students, most of them freshmen and a few grad students. Its aim is to be industry-friendly and produce industry-ready graduates in engineering and the hard sciences.

Avent came to Florida Poly from North Carolina State University, where he was associate vice chancellor of research and a professor of computer science. He holds a Ph.D. in biomedical mathematics and engineering from the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, a master’s in electrical engineering from N.C. State and a master’s in biomed mathematics and engineering from UNC, where he earned his bachelor’s in zoology.

Florida Poly is his first stint as a president. “My inexperience as a president is probably masked by our inexperience as a university,” he jokes. He says the university is on track in seeking accreditation, which state law requires the university to achieve by the end of next year. It’s critical to students, not least because no accreditation means no federal student loans and no money from educational savings plans. Meanwhile, a second dorm is in the works.

Avent’s thoughts on Florida Poly:

The inaugural year: “It went much smoother than any of us actually thought. Classes went off pretty smooth.”

Growth: “We’ll come pretty close to doubling the faculty, adding 30 between full time and adjuncts.”

Scholarships: “Last year we just flat paid tuition for everyone. (Next) year we’re doing variable scholarship amounts. In some cases they’ll get a lot more than tuition, and in some cases less. We had a lot of students show up last year — we had given them tuition, but they still had a tough time covering the cost of the dorm and books and other things.

This year we decided to have a variable that’s a combination of need-based and merit-based. There are some who don’t have much need but they’re top students. For those we have two new scholarships, a provost and a presidential.”

Paying for scholarships: “We’ve committed to fund the scholarships from the foundation.That’s a huge ask for the foundation.We’ve met all the requirements for the first class. Now we’re in a capital campaign to raise money for the second class.”

Student achievement: “For a brand new school starting out that doesn’t have a reputation and, more importantly, is not accredited, we can be very boastful of the students. A 1310 average SAT score is in the same ballpark as Worcester or Rensselaer (two long-established polytechnics). A 3. 9 average GPA.”

Distinction: “One of the things that separates us from other engineering schools is we’re a very project-oriented, designbased curriculum. No one told kids you have to finish calculus 3 and differential equations before you can start solving problems.We’re doing pretty good right up to the point you think, ‘Oh crap, they’re freshmen’ (and then you realize) we’re doing a whole lot better than good. We had one set of students file a provisional patent. We had a magnetically levitating lamp competition where students individually built lamps that levitated. It turns out there are a lot of engineering problems with that. We’ve had a number of design competitions this year.”

Future: “One of the things we’re going to work on next year is the research infrastructure. We’ve still got a long ways to go on the research infrastructure.”

Money: “We’re doing fine.There are always challenges. When you’re building a whole new university, there’s a lot of stuff you have to buy. The state did very well by us.”

Preparation: “We want to make sure the students who are graduating are lifetime employable.We have an underwater autonomous vehicle club, a humanpowered vehicle club. Kids are building projects all the time, and that’s integrated into the curriculum, and they’ll do that for all four years. When they come out, they’ll know how to build stuff.”

Florida Poly

  • 2014/15 Enrollment: 554 as of spring
  • 2015/16 Projected Enrollment: 906
  • 2014/15 Faculty: 59 (includes full-time and adjunct faculty); the school expects to add approximately 10 faculty members in 2015/16.
  • 2014/15 Operating Budget: $38 million

Florida A&M University

Last year, Elmira Mangum became the 11th president of Florida A&M University. A longtime college administrator, Mangum previously was vice president for planning and budget at Cornell University. She has a bachelor’s degree from North Carolina Central University, two master’s degrees from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and a Ph.D. in educational leadership and policy from the University of Buffalo. Former FAMU President James Ammons left in mid-2012 amid controversy over the hazing death of a member of the school’s famed marching band and administrative problems.

Florida State College at Jacksonville

Cynthia Bioteau says she has worked to rebuild community trust after becoming the fifth president of Florida State College at Jacksonville last year. She replaced Steven Wallace, whose contract was terminated after a series of controversies involving spending, operational problems and Wallace’s use of compensatory time. Bioteau previously was president of Salt Lake Community College in Utah.

Daytona State College

In January, Thomas LoBasso was named interim president at Daytona State College. LoBasso had been the college’s COO and provost. The previous president, Carol Eaton, stepped down after her contract was not renewed in November.

Gulf Coast State College

John Holdnak became president at Gulf Coast State College in Panama City last year. Holdnak, who replaced retiring Jim Kerley, previously was executive vice chancellor of the Florida College System. Holdnak had worked at the college from 1982-2008 until leaving to go to Tallahassee.

Pasco-Hernando State College

In July, Timothy Beard will become the fourth president at Pasco-Hernando State College, replacing Katherine Johnson, who’s retiring. Beard has been vice president of student development and enrollment management since 2007.

Palm Beach State College

In April, Ava Parker was named the fifth president at Palm Beach State College in Lake Worth. She plans to start in July and will succeed Dennis Gallon, who is retiring after 18 years as president. Parker will join the college from Florida Polytechnic University, where she led the development of the state’s 12th public university as COO.

Chipola College

Last year, Jason Hurst took the helm at Chipola College in Marianna, replacing Gene Prough, who retired. Hurst had been the college’s executive vice president for the two preceding years and had worked at Pensacola State College and schools in Alabama, including a stint as a machine tool instructor, before coming to Florida.\


The University of Miami names its first Hispanic president.

By Mike Vogel

The selection of Mexico’s former health minister and Harvard public health school dean as the University of Miami’s first Hispanic president speaks volumes about how the university and Miami see themselves.

Administrator and physician Julio Frenk, 61, takes over in September from his one-time U.S. counterpart, former U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala, 74, who is leaving after 14 years to become president of the Clinton Foundation.

Under Shalala, only the fifth president in UM’s 90 years, the school became the highest-ranked national university in Florida on U.S. News’ annual list. The 15,000-student school has been in the top 50 for six years. Shalala led two capital campaigns that raised $3 billion, and oversaw the ambitious expansion of UM’s research work and health care system, which includes its medical school and a private hospital UM acquired under her.

“We have seen our university pole-vault to new heights,” says Stuart Miller, chair of UM’s board of trustees and chairman and CEO of home builder Lennar.

The job of succeeding Shalala attracted so much interest, says search committee leader Richard Fain, chairman and CEO of Royal Caribbean Cruises, that “it gave us an opportunity to punch above our weight” in terms of the candidates it could consider. “We feel we have a builder,” Fain says.

A soft-spoken man who towered over Shalala at his introductory news conference, Frenk is representative of his native Mexico’s own melting pot, a descendant of Spanish immigrants and refugees from Nazi Germany. He earned his medical degree in Mexico and two graduate degrees and a doctorate at the University of Michigan.

As Mexico’s health minister, he led the introduction of a comprehensive universal health insurance program. He also worked as a high-level administrator at the World Health Organization in Switzerland. At Harvard, he transformed the public health school, says Shalala, who has known him for more than 20 years. Frenk quadrupled fundraising at the school and, under him, the school received the largest single gift in Harvard’s history, a $350-million naming donation for the school.

A hole in his resume is handling major college athletics. UM has had its share of scandals, and its once vaunted football team has been lackluster for years. Frenk says he’s not much of an athlete and grew up playing soccer and basketball but became an American football fan while at Michigan. He says he would take time in coming months to learn the community’s expectations for UM sports. He says athletics are integral to university education.

A careful speaker, Frenk demurred when asked about his vision for Miami. He says he will immerse himself before September in the university. “It would be pretentious of me at this point to say here’s my vision,” he says. “My main duty at this point is to listen, to understand, to appreciate the great history and culture of this university, and through that process I’m sure the limits of a vision and the plan of action to realize that vision will emerge.”

Frenk was attracted to UM by the momentum Shalala generated and its unique geographic advantage. UM, like Miami, increasingly sees itself beyond Florida as a world player. Speaking and taking questions in English and Spanish at the news conference, Frenk says, “This university and this city are uniquely global.” He looks forward to building bridges internationally. “This is really the hemispheric university,” he says.

More Than Job Training

Rollins College’s new president believes in the value of a broad-based education that will last a lifetime.

By Jason Garcia

As much of the academic world stampedes into STEM courses and applied degrees, Rollins College and its new president are doubling down on the liberal arts.

“The scope and complexity of the global economy means there has never been a time when a liberal education was more relevant or practical,” says Grant Cornwell, who becomes president of Rollins College on July 1. “The challenge is to continue to convey the value of a Rollins education in a market that has recently tended to reduce the goal of college to job-training, as opposed to the deeper, lifelong, career-enriching practicality of liberal education.”

Cornwell is the 15th president in the history of Rollins, a school of just over 3,000 students that was founded 130 years ago by New England Congregationalists on a bucolic bit of lakefront land in Winter Park. He arrived at the university from the College of Wooster in Ohio, another small liberal arts university, where he’d been president since 2007.

Cornwell, who has undergraduate degrees in both philosophy and biology and master’s and doctoral degrees in philosophy, spent more than two decades at St. Lawrence University in Canton, N.Y., first as a member of the school’s philosophy department and later as dean of academic affairs and vice president of the university. He and his family — wife Peg and sons Tosh and Kelsey — go sailing every summer; Rollins’ announcement of the hiring included a photo of Cromwell and his sons eating fresh mussels aboard a sailboat in Maine.

Cornwell’s background contrasts markedly with that of his predecessor, Lewis Duncan, a physicist and former engineering school dean who stepped down last year after a 10-year tenure in which he repeatedly clashed with the faculty of the College of Arts & Sciences, Rollins’ largest group of professors.

Carol Lauer, president of the Rollins Arts & Sciences faculty, served on the search committee that chose Cromwell and is excited about his arrival.

“Around the country liberal arts are under attack,” says Lauer, a professor of anthropology. “And Grant makes a very compelling case for why the best education is really a broad education in the liberal arts, preparing people for a multitude of careers or jobs they may hold in their lifetimes and to live a good and meaningful life.”


Beacon College

George Hagerty, who became president at Beacon College in 2013, says his priorities include managing enrollment growth, enhancing the school through renovations and new construction, and increasing charitable support for student scholarships. Located in Leesburg, Beacon offers undergraduate degrees to students with learning disabilities and ADHD. Hagerty says his main challenge is balancing cost pressures with the ability of families to pay for a college education. Hagerty was president of Franklin Pierce University in New Hampshire from 1995-2009. He later was provost at the Hellenic American University in Athens, Greece.

Saint Leo University

William Lennox, a retired Army three-star general and former superintendent of the U. S. Military Academy, has been named the ninth president at Saint Leo University in Pasco County. He succeeds Arthur Kirk, who is retiring after 18 years at the school. Lennox graduated from West Point with a bachelor’s in international affairs and earned a master’s and Ph.D. in literature from Princeton University, writing his dissertation on American war poetry. From 2001-06, he led the U.S. Military Academy, where he managed a $250-million budget and completed a $150-million fundraising campaign with more than $220 million. In 2006, Lennox joined the Washington, D.C.- based aerospace company Goodrich as senior vice president and left in 2012. He has been a member of Saint Leo’s board of trustees since 2008.