The Kelly Years (2014-)


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.

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. His first major initiative was creation of a new strategic plan 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.”

After a four-month “listening tour” during which he met with faculty, staff, administrators, students and other stakeholders, Dr. Kelly discovered 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.

People both inside and outside the university soon learned that President Kelly was serious about taking FAU to 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.

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.

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 news locally), introducing a “JumpStart” summer program for incoming freshmen to help them get off on the right track, and developing detailed plans of study called “flight plans” for lower-division students. These and other changes yielded impressive results and 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.

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 be located adjacent to FAU Stadium and will offer enrichment opportunities to all students, including those who are not part of the university’s 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.”

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.”

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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. In March 2015, 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.”

In the spring of 2015, President Kelly also 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.

In fall 2015, FAU welcomed home some very special Owls, as members of the very first graduating class – the Class of 1965 – returned to the Boca Raton campus to be inducted into the Majestic Owls Society. The Society was created by the FAU Alumni Association to celebrate the 50th anniversary of each graduating class, beginning with the Class of ’65.

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Spring of 2016 was an exciting time for the university. When the Board of Governors released the scores and rankings, incredibly, FAU was No. 1 on the list! Highlights of the report card included:

  • FAU ranked first in the state in percent of bachelor’s graduates employed full-time or continuing their education one year from graduation.
  • Over the last two years, FAU’s six-year graduation rate increased by 8 percent.
  • FAU increased its academic progress rate by 6 percent.
  • FAU consistently ranked in the top two for median average full-time wages of undergraduates employed in Florida one year after graduation.

Some of the new performance funds received were used to upgrade facilities, including the Breezeway. Since 1961, the Breezeway has been “Main Street FAU,” linking the four original buildings used by FAU’s first students – the Library, the Learning Resources Building, the Sanson Science Building and General Classrooms South – and serving as a gathering place for students between classes. Construction began in the summer of 2016 and included concrete repairs and waterproofing of the original structure, as well as roof replacement, restroom refurbishment and LED lighting enhancements.

FAU’s baseball and softball teams both ended the 2016 season as Conference USA champions. The baseball team made its 12th NCAA Regional appearance and was ranked as high as 12th nationally. The softball team made its second-straight NCAA Regional appearance. FAU was one of only seven universities nationwide to have both baseball and softball teams end the season ranked in the Top 25.

The year ended with two exciting announcements. The first was that FAU’s Brain Institute would be home to a Nikon Center of Excellence. With this partnership, FAU would benefit from Nikon technical expertise and access to high-end research microscopes at a favorable cost, while Nikon gained a showcase for its products and valuable feedback from our scientists. FAU was just the seventh designated center in the United States and one of only 17 worldwide. This strategic partnership represented a commitment by both FAU and Nikon to accelerating advancements in neuroscience.

The second exciting announcement was that Lane Kiffin would be FAU’s next head football coach. He joined FAU from the University of Alabama where, as offensive coordinator, he helped the Crimson Tide win a National Championship. College football in South Florida was about to be transformed, and the Owls, under Coach Kiffin, would be leading the charge.

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FAU kicked off 2017 by breaking ground on the Schmidt Family Complex for Academic and Athletic Excellence, which would help create a national model of academic excellence in athletics. Among the friends who attended this momentous event were three Owls who were playing in the NFL: Brandin Bryant, Trevon Coley and Lucky Whitehead; as well as the Complex’s major donors: Dick and Barb Schmidt, Eleanor Baldwin, Bobby and Barbara Campbell and Christine Lynn.

The university received designation as a Hispanic-Serving Institution by the U.S. Department of Education. The designation, which is awarded to colleges and universities with enrollment of full-time Hispanic undergraduate students of at least 25 percent, would help FAU further serve this growing population.

FAU continued to receive transformational gifts from generous donors. The School of Social Work within the College for Design and Social Inquiry received a spectacular $7 million gift from longtime benefactors Phyllis and Harvey Sandler to name The Phyllis and Harvey Sandler School of Social Work. The gift established certificate programs in neuroscience, military and veterans’ affairs, and leadership and nonprofit management; a Substance Misuse, Mental Health and Research Center; and the Robin Rubin Mindfulness and Wellness Center, in honor of Phyllis and Harvey’s daughter Robin, an FAU alumna and School of Social Work faculty member. FAU’s Lifelong Learning Society received a $4 million endowment grant from the Bernard Osher Foundation. The program was renamed the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI) at Florida Atlantic University in his honor. OLLI at FAU, which is dedicated to offering intellectually enriching educational experiences to older adults with non-credit courses, is believed to be the largest program of its kind in the country.

In May 2017, FAU celebrated a new kind of signing day – for academics rather than athletics – as four of the nation’s brightest teens were officially accepted into an innovative new medical school pipeline program. The FAU High School M.D. Direct program places gifted high school students directly in line to earn their medical degrees and is the first of its kind to be launched in the United States. They will complete their B.S. degree within one year and complete a graduate program at FAU or approved research program, among other requirements, prior to entering medical school.

FAU’s commitment to providing quality research opportunities for undergraduates paid off in Fall 2017, when the Council on Undergraduate Research named FAU one of three recipients of the Award for Undergraduate Research Accomplishments. This national award recognizes institutions that have developed exemplary programs that provide high-quality research, scholarship and creative experiences for undergraduate students.

The FAU football team had a banner year, winning its first-ever Conference USA championship! The Owls defeated the University of North Texas 41-17, which was the largest margin of victory in C-USA Championship Game history. The team finished the season on an impressive nine-game win streak, bringing their overall record to 10-3 and becoming only the second team in C-USA history to finish with a 9-0 conference record. The Owls’ historic season came to a close with a 50-3 win over Akron in the Cheribundi Tart Cherry Boca Raton Bowl. The 47-point margin of victory was the largest in FBS history.

In December 2017, FAU and the Max Planck Florida Institute for Neuroscience announced a program unlike any other in the world. Designed to recruit and serve the very best of the best, the FAU Max Planck Honors Program – an undergraduate honors program in neuroscience – would offer exclusive electives, research opportunities and cutting-edge neuroscience training courses for high-achieving students. The program would be offered on the Jupiter campus beginning in fall 2018.

2017 was a year unlike any other for FAU, as the university set new records for private gifts to the FAU Foundation, National Merit Scholar students enrolled, research contracts and grants, and football wins. FAU was well on its way to achieving President Kelly’s vision of becoming “America’s fastest improving university.”

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