With only one president candidate left, this Florida search committee nominated him

Did increased legislation affecting higher education in the state force qualified leaders to back down from contention?
By: | September 23, 2022
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Several candidates who endured a monthslong process for the top position at Florida International University dropped out of contention during the final stage, leaving just one nominee, Dr. Kenneth Jessell. Without any other options, the search committee simply made the interim president their choice to move on to a potential nomination from the Board of Trustees

University Business has reached out to the Board to see why there was a sudden change of heart from those in the pool. Until now, those candidates had to be kept secret under a new Florida law. Roger Tovar, the Presidential Search Committee Chair, noted in a letter to the FIU community that it was “due to an unwillingness by other individuals to continue their candidacy, unless they were the sole recommendation of the committee.”

Tovar said the search committee had interest from as many as 70 leaders before it narrowed down its list through a battery of interviews with a dozen high-quality candidates. It is unclear whether they backed out for personal reasons or whether controversial new legislation and decision-making at the state level dissuaded them. In recent months, Gov. Ron DeSantis has taken aim at higher education, pushing through bills intended to limit faculty tenure, while forcing institutions to change accreditors every cycle and launch diversity surveys for students. He’s had the backing on several initiatives by new chancellor-elect Ray Rodrigues, a Republican. Any choice for president at Florida’s public institutions ultimately must meet the approval of the university system’s board of governors.

Even the 67-year-old Jessell, who spent more than 25 years up the turnpike at Florida Atlantic University as Senior VP of Financial Affairs, was reluctant about the permanency of the job. He has been at FIU since 2009, with Chief Financial Officer among his roles.

“[He] initially said he was not interested in applying for this position,” Tovar said. “We recruited him because many of us thought he was ideal for the position and several members of the community reached out to the search firm to nominate Dr. Jessell. We are thankful he ultimately decided to answer the call to become a candidate.”


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But for now, he is the leading man to lead FIU, an institution celebrating its 50th anniversary. And that is a pretty good place to be–in the heart of Miami at an R1 university that has always been an international business power, but has strengthened many other programs to become a formidable and affordable institution that can deliver flexible career paths for students.

“Our climb in the U.S. News rankings, together with these additional rankings [No. 32 from Washington Monthly], point to incredible momentum and put FIU among the nation’s most prestigious institutions,” Jessell said. “By focusing on academics, research, and student success, we are elevating our community and the state and creating an extraordinary return on investment for our students.”

He received a strong endorsement from Tovar, who believes he can carry through that momentum.

“He’s the right leader to keep us moving forward as a leading research institution,” Tovar said. “I have observed and worked with Dr. Jessell for years in his role as CFO and have had many opportunities to experience his work ethic, strategic thought process, and unwavering integrity. He is brilliant and kind and has steered us through an important transition at a pivotal moment for FIU.”

The institution he left behind, FAU, also has made temporary movement in its quest to replace outgoing leader John Kelly. Chief operating officer Stacy Volnick, who has been with the university in administrative positions since 1991, has been nominated for the interim president role as the Boca Raton institution searches for a permanent replacement.

Volnick is a strong choice, having looked after many vital day-to-day functions in her current role, from public safety and facilities management to human resources, emergencies and the operations of the president’s office. However, she has told the university and its board of trustees that she is not interested in the position long-term.