Kenneth Jessell formally sworn in as FIU's sixth president
Kenneth Jessell was formally sworn in as the sixth president of Florida International University on Thursday. Surrounded by state officials and local leaders, the career academic took his oath at a time when advocates say higher education in the state is under attack.
Jessell says he knows the transformative power of higher education — how it can catapult students and entire families towards a better life.
“As an 18-year-old college student at Florida State University almost 50 years ago, I could never have imagined I would be standing before you today,” Jessell said. “I was a first-generation student, the first in my family to attend college, just like many of our students and many of you attending today. My story is the FIU story. One of grit, resilience and drive.”
Jessell has spent his career at Florida’s public universities. A three-time graduate of FSU, he went on to become a finance professor at Florida Atlantic University, where he spent more than two decades, ultimately moving into administration and becoming the school’s Senior Vice President for Financial Affairs. He joined FIU in 2009 as the school’s Chief Financial Officer.
Jessell was confirmed as FIU’s president in November 2022, after serving as the school’s interim leader following the sudden resignation of President Mark Rosenberg, who stepped down amid accusations of sexual harassment.
Top local and state officials in attendance
There was no shortage of ceremony at Thursday’s event at the Ocean Bank Convocation Center on FIU’s main campus.
More than 700 people attended the event, which featured a marching band, a procession of velvet-clad academics and even a literal passing of a torch.
The guest list for the ceremony underscores the critical role the school has taken on since opening its doors 50 years ago — and is an indication of who’ll be keeping an eye on Jessell’s tenure.
READ MORE: Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signs a bill banning DEI initiatives in public colleges
Among the dignitaries sitting on stage were Miami-Dade County Mayor Daniella Levine Cava, Republican State Rep. Daniel Perez who’s in line to be the next Speaker of the Florida House, Chancellor of Florida’s state university system Ray Rodrigues, and Republican Lt. Gov. Jeanette Nuñez, who gave the keynote address.
“I’m honored and thrilled that we have President Jessell to continue leading the charge,” Nuñez said. “I'm confident that with his background and his passion, he’ll continue to work collaboratively, but he’ll also fight for FIU in the halls of Tallahassee and in the halls of D.C.”
Perez administered the oath, which Jessell helped write, pledging to “advance the university's commitment to freedom of thought and expression”, “promote excellence in teaching and research” and “respect the dignity of all individuals."
Noticeably absent from the oath and the 20-plus minute speech Jessell gave was any mention of “academic freedom” — a tenet that the American Association of University Professors says is foundational to higher education.
Asked afterwards about his choice of language, Jessell said the values of academic freedom and integrity were “implied."
“We were trying to keep the talk down to about 22 minutes,” Jessell said. “I think by saying that we are focusing on the success of our students, our faculty and staff … that is clearly implied.”
Swearing-in comes days after governor approves new restrictions on higher ed
Jessell’s investiture comes just days after Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a new law targeting diversity programs on campus and restricting what can be taught in the state's higher education institutions.
Under the measure, colleges and universities will be prevented from spending state or federal money to promote, support or maintain programs or campus activities that “advocate for” diversity, equity and inclusion. Schools also will not be able to spend money on programs or activities that “promote or engage in political or social activism” as defined by state officials.
"If you look at the way this has actually been implemented across the country, DEI is better viewed as standing for discrimination, exclusion and indoctrination," DeSantis said during a news conference. "And that has no place in our public institutions."
After the ceremony on Thursday, Jessell told reporters he’ll find a way to comply with state law, while also not running afoul of federal mandates — which require students to be free from discrimination.
“We will find ways to ensure that we do all that is required of us,” Jessell said. “We will meet federal law. We will meet state law. And more importantly, we are going to meet the needs of this community.”
The News Service of Florida contributed to this report.