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FIU's interim president initially didn't want the top job. Now he's the only finalist

Pedro Portal / Miami Herald
After initially saying he wasn't interested in keeping the top job, the interim president of Florida International University is now the only finalist to be the school's next president. Kenneth Jessell previously served as a finance professor and the school's CFO and Senior Vice President for Finance and Administration.

Roger Tovar says it’s a measure of Dr. Kenneth Jessell's humility that the interim president of Florida International University didn’t initially put himself in the running to take the top job.

Jessell had said he wasn't interested in the permanent position. Now he's the only finalist to be the school’s sixth president. (Other top contenders dropped out of the running because they didn’t want to advance if they weren’t the sole finalist.)

Tovar, who leads the school’s presidential search committee, says he’s confident Jessell is the right person for the job.

Speaking about Jessell during a meeting of the school’s Board of Trustees on Thursday, Tovar became emotional.

“[I] have had many opportunities to experience his work ethic, strategic thought process and unwavering integrity. He’s brilliant. And this is an important one — he's kind,” Tovar said, his voice cracking. “And he’s steered the university during an important transition period and a pivotal moment for FIU.”

Jessell has led FIU since January, after previously serving as the school’s Senior Vice President for Finance and Administration and Chief Financial Officer, and as a finance professor.

He holds three degrees from Florida State University and spent 26 years at Florida Atlantic University, working as a professor in the Department of Finance and Real Estate and rising the ranks to become the school’s Senior Vice President for Financial Affairs.

Jessell was appointed after FIU’s previous president, Mark Rosenberg, resigned amid accusations of sexual harassment.

Soon after taking the helm, Jessell said he only intended to serve until a replacement was found, telling the Miami Herald he loved his previous job and wanted “to go back to that position”.

Jessell was ‘shocked’ when he was recruited for top job

Tovar, who is the vice chair of the Board of Trustees, says he himself recruited Jessell for the top job. According to Tovar, they were having breakfast when he made his pitch.

“He was surprised when I finally said, ‘Dr. Jessell, why don't you apply for the FIU president?’,” Tovar said. “He was shocked. He was taken aback.”

One of Jessell’s concerns, Tovar said, was that Jessell had initially said he didn’t want the permanent post.

“He said he would feel uncomfortable doing it because he's been saying that he's not a candidate. And I said, well that's 100% correct,” Tovar said. “You've not been a candidate. You have not asked to be a candidate. But I'm asking you to be a candidate. So he agreed.”

Jessell declined an interview request from WLRN on Thursday, citing scheduling conflicts.

Kate Payne / WLRN
Over the next three weeks, Florida International University will hold a series of public town halls for the community weigh on the candidacy of Interim President Kenneth Jessell.

Tovar says that in his 13 years at the university, and especially in the past eight months, Jessell has proven himself as a leader.

“Every time I looked across and I saw who was applying, my measuring stick was Dr. Jessell,” Tovar said. “And I would say, ‘would this person do a better job than Dr. Jessell?’”

Dean Colson, the chair of the Board of Trustees, says the board will have a more robust discussion and pose questions to Jessell after the school holds a series of public town halls on his candidacy.

“I’ve known Dr. Jessell a long time, but the last eight months have shown me… a side that I didn't know,” Colson said. “I couldn't thank him enough for his guidance over the last eight months, nine months. It’s been an interesting transition and it couldn't have gone more smoothly.”

Jessell rises to the top of a pool of 12 interviewees

In a presentation to the Board of Trustees on Thursday, Tovar said the presidential search committee interviewed a total of 12 candidates, who he described as dynamic, diverse and qualified.

Tovar said the pool included current and former university presidents, business leaders, and government officials. The identities of the candidates are confidential because of a new state law shielding university presidential searches from public view.

Under the public records exemption, only the identities of finalists are able to be released. FIU also had members of the presidential search committee sign nondisclosure agreements, saying it was "imperative" that applicants had "maximum confidentiality".

Tovar has said that keeping the process behind closed doors enabled the university to attract some applicants who would not have applied if their candidacy was publicly known.

FIU will hold public forums in the coming weeks

Over the next three weeks, FIU will hold public town halls for the community to weigh in on Jessell’s candidacy and to ask him questions.

After the school gets public feedback, the Board of Trustees can take a vote on the nomination. Ultimately it’s up to the Florida Board of Governors to confirm the appointment.

Kate Payne is WLRN's education reporter