FAU president becomes 8th state university leader to exit during pandemic

There are five positions up for grabs at prominent institutions in Florida, all subject to state board approval.

The game of musical chairs in presidents’ offices at Florida’s public universities is not slowing down, and Florida Atlantic University’s John Kelly has become the latest to announce he will be exiting his position at the end of the year.

Kelly joins a list of eight leaders at Sunshine State institutions who have decided to step down in the past two-plus years, either retiring on their own terms or yielding to exhaustion from the COVID-19 pandemic or other issues. Kelly said the time was right to walk away, although he offered few specifics in his resignation statement to the FAU community.

“My decision to step aside as Florida Atlantic University president comes at a time that I believe is not only right for me personally, but also right for the university,” he said. “My new role as University President Emeritus will afford me the time and flexibility to complete certain projects that are important to me personally and to the Board of Trustees. I believe this will be of great benefit to the university as we drive FAU forward. My time as president has been wonderful, and I am looking forward to this exciting new chapter.”

FAU plans to install an interim replacement to start 2023. In the past eight years, the 67-year-old has overseen a steady transformation of the university both academically and athletically. “His accomplishments number too many to mention,” Board of Trustees Chair Brad Levine said in a statement. “In 2014, he inherited a university that ranked last in the State University System’s performance-based funding metrics. Within a few short years, FAU ranked No. 1. The university hired world-class faculty, equity gaps were closed, student retention and graduation rates improved exponentially, and our on-campus student housing was full.”

In the quest to push the university to Carnegie R1 status, Levine and the Board have promised to find a permanent replacement with a “comprehensive, methodical, all-inclusive” search that will include stakeholders both on and off-campus, including faculty. Of course, those faculty won’t be able to get in front of those individuals until a finalist pool is determined and three weeks before they are interviewed under a new state law. There are currently four other openings at large state universities in Florida that also will be impacted, including:

  • The University of Florida, which is searching for a new leader to take over for Kent Fuchs, who announced he was stepping down from his post at the end of this academic year to take a faculty position;
  • The University of North Florida, whose trustees have approved Moez Limayem to replace interim leader Pamela Chally. The state board is set to begin its process next week;
  • Florida International University, which named Kenneth Jessell as its interim president in January to replace the embattled Mark Rosenberg;
  • And Florida Gulf Coast University, whose president Mike Martin is retiring after five years at the end of the year.

At the University of South Florida, the process went as planned, with trustee choice Rhea Law—the former interim president—confirmed by the Florida Board of Governors and voted in as the new president in March. It is unclear whether the other selections will be embraced by the state board. Law is one of only six current presidents in the system that is remaining, and none of them predate 2017. The two most veteran presidents are Martha Saunders at the University of West Florida and Larry Robinson and Florida A&M, with five years of service each. Alexander Cartwright has been the University of Central Florida president for a little more than two years, while Florida State University’s Richard McCullough and Patricia Okker at New College of Florida have been in their positions for less than a year.

More from UB: How 6 HBCUs are reacting to exodus of presidents

The remarkable turnover at Florida institutions far surpasses the national average job span of higher ed presidents, which is estimated to be at around six years. Newly installed presidents in Florida not only face the same challenges of their colleagues in other states, including falling enrollments, but are looking at a barrage of recent changes enacted or proposed by Republicans with pressure from Gov. Ron DeSantis to exert more control over higher education. That includes the newly signed law to have the state’s Board of Governors oversee tenured faculty positions, as well as the tamping down of subject matter such as critical race theory in classrooms.

“Florida’s students deserve a quality, affordable education and don’t need ideological activists and political organizations determining what they should learn,” DeSantis said. “By ushering in strong curriculum transparency requirements and providing accountability for tenured faculty, Florida is standing with students and parents across our state.”

Chris Burt
Chris Burt
Chris is a reporter and associate editor for University Business and District Administration magazines, covering the entirety of higher education and K-12 schools. Prior to coming to LRP, Chris had a distinguished career as a multifaceted editor, designer and reporter for some of the top newspapers and media outlets in the country, including the Palm Beach Post, Sun-Sentinel, Albany Times-Union and The Boston Globe. He is a graduate of Northeastern University.

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