Kenneth Jessell was named the interim president of Florida International University after the abrupt resignation of longtime FIU President Mark Rosenberg Friday afternoon.
FIU’s Board of Trustees confirmed Jessell as interim president at an emergency board meeting late Friday afternoon. The Florida Board of Governors, which oversees the state’s 12 public universities, will also have to approve his position.
Marc Sarnoff, a member of the FIU Board of Trustees since 2016, praised Jessell’s “unique” ability to serve as a professor and an administrator, a combination that he said he hasn’t seen often.
“I’m a big Ken Jessell fan,” Sarnoff said. “He’s probably the most astute man I’ve ever met with budgeting and understands the administration’s budget probably better than any one person. And being a former provost and faculty member, he also has a very strong educational background.
“I think Ken is going to do a fantastic job. Everybody likes Ken,” Sarnoff added.
Jessell, 66, FIU’s chief financial officer and senior vice president of finance and administration since 2009, has played an administrative role in Florida universities for more than three decades.
At the brief trustees meeting via video conference on Friday afternoon, the trustees who attended commended Jessell for his career at FIU. None of the trustees commented on Rosenberg’s legacy during his past 12 years as president and more than 40 years with the university, starting as an assistant professor in political science in 1976.
Rosenberg, 72, cited health concerns related to him and his wife when he announced his resignation Friday afternoon in an email to the FIU community.
It’s unclear how long Jessell will serve in the role, but he has fans among the students.
“He knows the ins and outs,” said Krista Schmidt, a second-year law student who served as the 2017-2018 president of the Student Government Association at the Modesto Maidique campus and is now co-founder and co-chair of the FIU Young Alumni Network.
“Being the CFO is not an easy task, you have to be aware of everything and crunching the numbers is a huge responsibility,” Schmidt said.
She added Jessell has “great energy,” is really funny and is very approachable.
He began at FIU in 2009 as the university’s senior vice president and chief financial officer.
“I have known Dr. Jessell for over a decade and consider him one of the most experienced and successful public university financial strategists in the country,” Rosenberg said at the time.
Before coming to FIU, Jessell served as the senior vice president for financial affairs at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton. He worked there for more than 25 years.
During his time at FAU, he served as interim university provost, interim vice president, associate university provost and associate dean, according to the bio on FIU’s website.
He was CFO and senior vice president at FIU at the time the pedestrian bridge that FIU was championing collapsed suddenly on March 15, 2018, killing six people, including an 18-year-old FIU student, Alexa Duran. The bridge was being constructed at Southwest Eighth Street and 109th Avenue and was to ferry students from Sweetwater to FIU’s main campus.
Jessell told the Herald that in 2009 Rosenberg took him to Sweetwater and told him he wanted to “bridge the gap” between the campus and the city, where many FIU students lived and still live. Plans for the bridge didn’t start to shape up until 2010.
After a 19-month investigation, the National Transportation Safety Board concluded in October 2019 that FIU, the Florida Department of Transportation, as well as the project’s design-build team and inspectors, failed to react properly to cracks forming and made a fatal error in leaving the heavily trafficked Southwest Eighth Street open while a construction crew performed emergency work on the bridge.
Alan Goldfarb, who represented the Duran family after their daughter’s death, said the project was rushed and the drive to finish on time led to fatal mistakes.
In one email from June 2017 reviewed by the Herald, Jessell said he worried delays would affect the project’s funding.
“I am already 5 months behind schedule, and if we can’t get the 404 permit issued soon it will delay the project even more. Because the funding of this project has a limited time period, I worry about any delay,” Jessell wrote.
Families of the six people who died, and the eight injured survivors, sued more than 20 defendants for their alleged role in the collapse, with at least six companies settling.
Two years after the collapse, the Florida Department of Transportation announced in May 2020 that it was ready to restart the project.
In a letter to the Federal Highway Administration, Jessell wrote that “the need for the pedestrian bridge is greater today” than when the project was initially proposed in 2013.
In an FIU statement, he said the new bridge project would include “an appropriate way to memorialize the victims of the 2018 accident.”
FIU is planning a memorial on campus for the victims, which will be unveiled around the fourth anniversary of the collapse, which will be March 15.
Miami Herald Reporter Michelle Marchante contributed to this report.