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FIU and FAU will be led by first-generation college grads

FIU Interim President Dr. Kenneth A. Jessell makes a toast to celebrate FIU’s 50th anniversary on the steps of the Charles Perry Building at the Modesto A. Maidique Campus in Miami, Fla. on Monday, Sept. 19, 2022.
Sydney Walsh
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Miami Herald
FIU Interim President Dr. Kenneth A. Jessell makes a toast to celebrate FIU’s 50th anniversary on the steps of the Charles Perry Building at the Modesto A. Maidique Campus in Miami, Fla. on Monday, Sept. 19, 2022.

Dr. Kenneth Jessell is officially the new president of Florida International University after winning the unanimous support of the state Board of Governors on Wednesday.

“As a first-generation college student in the mid-1970s, it never occurred to me that I would eventually attend graduate school to become a college professor, much less become a university president. Yet here I am, full of optimism and Panther pride, focused and energized to get to work and collaborate with you as we usher FIU to new heights,” Jessell wrote in a message to the campus community on Wednesday.

Jessell is a career academic and administrator who previously worked as the school’s Chief Financial Officer and a finance professor in the College of Business Administration. He’s led FIU as interim president since January after then-President Mark Rosenberg resigned amid accusations of sexual harassment.

Jessell is something of a collector of the state’s public universities. Before coming to FIU, he spent 26 years at Florida Atlantic University, where he worked his way up from a professor to associate dean, interim provost and senior vice president. He’s a three-time graduate of Florida State University and the first in his family to graduate from college.

Before the vote on Wednesday, Jessell fielded a couple of questions from the Board of Governors on the business climate in South Florida and the importance of free speech on campus.

“You cannot have a quality higher education without free expression. And that means you have to provide opportunities for divergent points of view so they can be debated in a very, very civil way,” he said. “It is fundamental to how we deliver higher education.”

At first, Jessell didn’t want the top job, but now he says he’s committed to leading the school into a new era. Earlier this year, FIU marked the 50th anniversary of its first day of classes.

More than 70 candidates applied to lead the school — one of the largest and most diverse in the country — but ultimately, Jessell was the only finalist after other top contenders dropped out of consideration.

Throughout his time as interim president and during the search process, Jessell won over FIU’s Board of Trustees, which includes faculty and student leaders, donors and alumni. At times, some school officials have become emotional speaking about Jessell’s leadership and commitment to the university.

fiu_miami_herald_michelle_marchante.jpg
Michelle Marchante
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Miami Herald

FAU’s COO will take over as interim president in January

Florida Atlantic University will also soon be led by a first-generation college graduate — at least for a little while. Stacy Volnick, the school’s chief operating officer, will take over as interim president on Jan. 1, 2023, as FAU searches for a permanent leader.

Earlier this year, FAU President John Kelly announced his plans to step down at the end of 2022. He will stay on as president emeritus and plans to focus on helping the school earn the designation of being an R1 research institution.

StacyVolnick_FAU_110922.jpeg
Courtesy: Florida Atlantic University
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Stacy Volnick is scheduled to take office as the Interim President of Florida Atlantic University on Jan. 1, 2023. She's currently FAU's Chief Operating Officer.

At the Board of Governors meeting on Wednesday, Volnick said she’s committed to keeping higher ed accessible.

“I’m the first in my family to earn a college degree – not the last but the first. This resonates at Florida Atlantic in that we have a tremendous first-generation population,” Volnick said. “We’re committed to providing the resources and support needed so that they may be the first in their families to earn a degree.”

Volnick is a triple graduate of FAU with degrees in communications and higher education leadership. She’s spent more than 30 years at the university, working in various administrative positions, including interim chief inspector general and interim vice president for financial affairs and chief financial officer.

Volnick says she’s up for this next challenge – she recently completed her Ph.D. and wrote her dissertation on the issues facing female university presidents.

“When I started my doctoral journey five years ago, my research was on women college presidents,” she said. “I never dreamed I would be sitting here today.”

Kate Payne is WLRN's education reporter