On January 17, 2014, at the conclusion of a national search, the FAU Board of Trustees voted unanimously to name Dr. John Kelly the university’s seventh president. Dr. Kelly came to FAU from Clemson University, where he held a succession of leadership positions over a 28-year period. As vice president for economic development he was one of Clemson’s three mission vice presidents, with wide-ranging responsibilities that included policy setting, strategic planning, hiring strategies, communication and budgeting. He oversaw 12 campuses and centers in a variety of South Carolina locations, supervised more than 900 employees and managed an annual budget of $90 million. As executive director of the Clemson University Restoration Institute, he built a highly collaborative team to educate students and direct research in energy systems.
Dr. Kelly also headed Clemson University Public Service Activities, a statewide agency with outreach programs in 46 counties. In this role, he directed Clemson’s Undergraduate Service Learning program, oversaw a broad array of specialized centers and institutes and was co-leader of the Clemson University Center for Workforce Development.
Active on the national level, Dr. Kelly has served on the boards of the Administrative Heads Section of the National Association of State Universities and Land-grant Colleges (now the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities) and the American Distance Education Consortium.
He began his academic career in 1982 as an assistant professor in the department of horticulture at Texas A&M University. Three years later, he went to Clemson, rising through the ranks to become professor and department head by 1991. He was named vice president for public service and agriculture in 1997 and vice president for economic development in 2010.
Dr. Kelly holds three degrees in horticulture – a bachelor’s degree from Clemson and both a master’s degree and a Ph.D. from The Ohio State University.
“Today marks a great day in the history of FAU,” said Anthony Barbar, chair of FAU’s Board of Trustees. “We are proud of our selection of Dr. Kelly as our leader, and we are confident that his vision will guide FAU to its next level of greatness.”
Dr. Ronald Nyhan, president of the University Faculty Senate and a member of the Board of Trustees, told the Palm Beach Post that he was “tremendously impressed” by Dr. Kelly. “He is an individual who comes to us not just with experience, but with concrete ideas about where we can go.”
“I am privileged to have been selected as the next president of FAU,” said Dr. Kelly. “ This is a great university. I’m here for the long term.”
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To say President Kelly hit the ground running would be an understatement. He arrived at FAU in March 2014 and immediately began meeting with key groups and individuals, including elected officials, business and civic leaders, university donors and friends, and members of the news media. He announced a plan for the first 100 days of his presidency under the following guiding principles:
- To reaffirm and celebrate the progress and success FAU has realized both internally and externally at the local, national and international levels.
- To reinforce an atmosphere of transparency, inclusion and open communication.
- To reinforce a positive campus culture of respect, open dialogue and support of students, faculty, staff, alumni and the community.
- To reinforce an atmosphere that celebrates the diversity that is FAU in the spirit of civility.
- To create immediate connections with student, faculty, staff, organizations, campus groups and boards.
- To emphasize a campus community that is supportive of faculty and staff in their work in serving student success.
At the conclusion of his first 10 weeks in office, he announced several additions to his executive leadership team, as well as some key appointments. Dr. Gary Perry, former dean of the Charles E. Schmidt College of Science, was named provost and vice president for academic affairs. Stacy Volnick’s title was changed from vice president for administrative affairs and chief of staff to vice president for administration and chief administrative officer. Dorothy Russell was named vice president for finance and administration and chief financial officer. Two new vice presidencies were created and filled by colleagues of high achievement who had worked beside President Kelly at Clemson. Peter Hull was named vice president for public affairs and Jorge Calzadilla became vice president for public affairs. This reshaping of the administrative structure underscored President Kelly’s determination to streamline the organization of FAU’s leadership team and strengthen the university’s outreach to external constituencies.
The first major initiative undertaken by President Kelly was creation of a new strategic plan, one that would guide FAU steadily upward along a 10-year arc to 2025. His vision was clear: “Florida Atlantic will pursue, with unbridled ambition, the intention of becoming the country’s fastest-improving public research university.” To gain a thorough understanding of the university’s people, culture, programs and challenges, he and Provost Perry spent four months meeting personally with all 60 academic departments and student-related units on FAU’s six campuses, spending two to three hours with each group. The purpose was to engage in thoughtful dialogue about conditions at the university and to hear unfiltered commentary from faculty, staff, administrators, students and other stakeholders. The overwhelming impression that President Kelly took away from this “listening tour” was that FAU was filled with “hidden jewels” and it was his job to make sure those jewels were polished to a high shine and displayed on the national stage. He brought a fresh, new perspective to FAU, and his optimism had an energizing effect on many in the university community. In September 2014 he delivered his first state of the university address to a packed audience in the Kaye Auditorium. Here is an excerpt from that speech:
What can we do to help this university reach its full potential? What’s our responsibility for you and for the generations that have passed through here and the generations yet to come? What can we do that constantly adds value to the FAU brand? . . . How do we work so that we know what we’re doing strategically? . . . Having a good strategy to get there is essential, and I think we can develop that kind of strategy together.
People both inside and outside the university soon learned that President Kelly was serious about working collegially to take FAU to ever higher levels of achievement and recognition. He reached out to a broad range of stakeholders seeking input to the strategic plan, which was completed in the spring of 2015 and presented to the Board of Trustees under the title The Race to Excellence. It received unanimous Board approval on March 24, 2015, and is in effect at the time of this writing.
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At the heart of the plan are Pillars and Platforms, with Pillars being programs that benefit society by creating knowledge and Platforms describing scholarly activities that support the Pillars.
The plan identifies the following core Pillars, all of which represent areas of special strength at FAU:
- Healthy aging
- Health and wellness
- Geriatrics and aging in place
- Drug discovery
- Health policy, health equity and health economics
- Stem cell research and regenerative medicine
- Dementia and Alzheimer’s disease
- Psychiatric illnesses and mental health
- Spinal cord injuries, eye disease and cognition
- Communication disorders
- Ocean science and engineering/environmental sciences
- Health of the Everglades and the Atlantic Ocean, including river basins
- Harnessing energy from the environment
- Technologies that contribute to national security
- Sensing and smart systems
- Sensor technology that can measure changes in the health of people or environments and advance automation
Platforms include scholarly activities falling into the following broad categories:
- Big data analytics
- Community engagement and economic development
- Global perspectives and participation
- Healthy and environmentally sustainable campuses
- Leadership, innovation and entrepreneurship
- Peace, justice and human rights
- South Florida culture
- Undergraduate research and inquiry
A major funding challenge faced the university shortly after President Kelly’s arrival. In 2014, the Florida Board of Governors introduced a new, performance-based funding policy for the state’s 12 public universities, ranking them on the basis of a points system. FAU scored low overall because of poor performance in two areas: the freshman retention rate and the six-year first-time-in-college graduation rate. There was an argument to be made that as an institution serving a predominantly commuter student body, with more than 70 percent attending part-time, FAU should not be held to the same standards as universities with traditional full-time, residential student bodies. In fact, previous FAU administrations had offered this “apples and oranges” response when faced with criticism about low retention and graduation rates, but these metrics had never before been directly tied to funding. Faced with a $7 million reduction of the university’s budget, President Kelly led the charge to put programs in place that would fast-track improved performance. Strategies included hiring 26 new academic advisers, making advising services more accessible to evening commuter students by offering them in parking garages on the Boca Raton campus (an innovation that made page one news locally), introducing a “JumpStart” summer program for incoming freshmen to help them get off on the right track, developing detailed plans of study called “flight plans” for lower-division students, creating a bachelor of general studies degree and launching a campaign dubbed “Major KnOWLedge” that encouraged students to declare majors early in their college careers, thus giving them a specific academic focus. These and other changes yielded impressive results in a very short period of time. Within just one year, FAU’s metrics had improved so dramatically that the $7 million was restored and the university qualified for $11.3 million in additional performance-based funding. President Kelly was quick to share credit with members of the FAU team who had made major contributions to the turnaround, saying “Our ascent in the rankings is a wonderful achievement – and a just reward for the dedication of so many people. Everyone associated with FAU should be proud of what we’ve achieved during the last year.”
In addition to leading FAU’s reversal of fortune in the State University System rankings, President Kelly was active on other fronts. He reached out to some of the world’s most accomplished biomedical research organizations to strengthen existing partnerships and create new ones. The most exciting of these initiatives was a renewed relationship linking FAU with Scripps Florida and the Max Planck Florida Institute for Neuroscience, both of which built major research facilities on FAU’s Jupiter campus a few years before President Kelly’s arrival. While engagement between FAU’s faculty and student researchers and the world-class scientists at Scripps and Max Planck had been frequently discussed and some partnership activities had been undertaken, the full potential of the three-way alliance was not clearly defined until March 2015, when principals of the organizations came together in a news conference to announce a new focus. President Kelly, Scripps Acting President and CEO James Paulson and Max Planck CEO and Scientific Director David Fitzpatrick pledged to work cooperatively to establish a one-of-a-kind education program that would allow FAU students to work side by side in state-of-the-art laboratories with some of the world’s leading scientific researchers, including Nobel Laureates.
“This initiative comes from the core of economic development,” President Kelly said. “FAU, Max Planck and Scripps will solve real-world problems and take strides to improve human health. We will create the knowledge economy of the future. Moreover, we will provide students unique scientific research programs that will be the envy of the world.”
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The university also forged important new partnerships with the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology’s Ruth and Bruce Rappaport Faculty of Medicine and the Nansen Neuroscience Network in Norway.
Early on, President Kelly said he intended to recruit “game changers” to FAU’s faculty, and he lost no time in fulfilling that pledge. Among the university’s new hires were Dr. Daniel Flynn, a renowned breast cancer researcher who joined FAU as vice president for research; Dr. Jason Hallstrom, a computer scientist who invented small, wireless devices capable of remotely tracking a wide range of environmental and human health conditions; Dr. James Galvin, an internationally known expert on Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia; and Dr. Gregg Fields, holder of seven U.S. patents who was named chair of the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry and director of the Center for Molecular Biology and Biotechnology in the Charles E. Schmidt College of Science. President Kelly welcomed them all as heavy hitters with the ability to put FAU on the national stage.
In the fall of 2014, the university presented two high school expos on the Boca Raton campus to introduce students living in Broward and Palm Beach counties to FAU. Thousands of potential FAU freshmen and their parents attended these day-long events, which culminated with free admission to a football game in FAU Stadium. This presidential initiative was promoted with the highest professionalism by FAU’s creative services and marketing teams. Their efforts won a Collegiate Advertising Award, a national honor.
As the 2014 holiday season approached, FAU received a truly remarkable gift: a $16 million donation from the Schmidt Family Foundation to build a state-of-the-art facility on the Boca Raton campus to help student-athletes excel in the classroom and on the playing field. The gift – the largest single donation in FAU’s history – provided initial funding for the Schmidt Family Complex for Academic and Athletic Excellence. It will offer enrichment opportunities to all students, including those who are not part of the university’s intercollegiate athletics program.
Speaking on behalf of the Schmidt Family Foundation, longtime FAU supporter and 1970 alumnus Richard L. Schmidt said, “The Foundation believes Florida Atlantic University — our university right here in Boca Raton — is poised for greatness. As a community, we understand that to compete at the highest levels, in and out of the classroom, students must have access to premier facilities.”
The complex, to be constructed adjacent to FAU Stadium, is expected to include a student-athlete academic and leadership center as well as strength and conditioning equipment, sports medicine services, health and wellness centers and an indoor training facility.
President Kelly said the Schmidt Family Foundation’s overwhelming generosity will help FAU gain national recognition as a great university. “With a main campus less than two miles from some of the country’s most pristine coastline, FAU has enormous potential and will become an irresistible draw for the best and brightest students,” he said. “We’re going to play to win — and that means in the classroom and on the field.”
In the spring of 2015, President Kelly led the university’s 112th commencement ceremonies, which celebrated the graduation of the largest class in FAU’s history – 3,268 students received undergraduate and graduate degrees, including the first 53 students to be awarded M.D. degrees by the Charles E. Schmidt College of Medicine. All of these new physicians got residency matches to continue their medical education in specializations of their choice, including some who were bound for prestigious Ivy League institutions such as Yale University’s New Haven Hospital and Brown University’s Rhode Island Hospital. Additionally, FAU’s College of Medicine was awarded full accreditation by the Liaison Committee on Medical Education, the recognized accrediting authority for medical education programs in the U.S. and Canada. The college’s recently launched residency program in internal medicine received more than 4,700 applications for the 36 available positions.
By the summer of 2015, as President Kelly set off for Germany to meet personally with the highest Max Planck officials, it had become clear that he was prepared to pursue his vision for FAU with a well-planned course of action. His unwavering commitment earned many allies for him and the university as it generated excitement among students, faculty and staff. The feeling was growing that great things lay ahead.
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