‘One of the humblest humans’: New president takes over FIU amid tumultuous time in higher ed
In a ceremony that attracted about 850 and cost about $45,000, Kenneth Jessell, who landed in the top office of Florida International University after an unexpected turn of events, officially took the helm of the largest public university in South Florida on Thursday.
“I feel so excited,” said Jessell after his swearing-in, held at the Ocean Bank Convocation Center at FIU’s main campus in West Miami-Dade. “I’m so proud and honored to be the sixth president of FIU.”
Jessell, 67, became the interim president at FIU in January 2022, after former President Mark Rosenberg suddenly resigned when a woman who worked in his office accused him of misconduct. At the time, the FIU Board of Trustees scrambled and tapped Jessell, who had worked as FIU’s chief financial officer and vice president for 13 years, to fill the spot.
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When the presidential search began soon after, Jessell vowed not to apply, but then said he enjoyed the job so much that he did. In September, the Presidential Search Committee advanced him as the lone candidate for the post. In October, the Board of Trustees selected him as the next president, and in November, the Florida Board of Governors confirmed the appointment.
Jessell, a first-generation college student like most at FIU, received a bachelor’s in political science, a master’s in business and a doctorate in finance from Florida State University. He spent nearly three decades at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton before coming to FIU.
He now manages about 56,000 students, and about 8,000 faculty and staff. His total compensation is nearly $1 million.
Daniella Levine Cava, Miami-Dade County’s mayor, praised Jessell’s “calming spirit” and “heart that is so large that it fills the room.”
Then she added: “He stepped up and leaded when we needed him the most.”
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Jessell’s investiture comes after a tumultuous spring semester, which featured protests on campus over recent bills championed by Gov. Ron DeSantis that will dramatically alter higher education in Florida, especially faculty tenure, diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives, and what can be taught in college and university classrooms.
Asked what he would tell those concerned about these issues, Jessell said: “I tell them that we’re going to continue to do what we’ve always done, and that is to focus on our students, faculty and staff. You heard it in my oath. I respect the dignity; I promised to respect the dignity of every individual that we have and that will never change.”
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In part of his oath, Jessell vowed to uphold academic freedom: “I will advance the university’s commitment to freedom of thought and expression,” he said.
Rep. Daniel Perez, a Republican representing House District 116 in Miami-Dade County and the upcoming speaker of the Florida House, led the investiture.
Jessell “customized” the oath from the one Rosenberg took when he rose to the presidency in 2009, but both versions included the line about academic freedom, according to FIU spokeswomen Madeline Baro and Maydel Santana.
Jessell described that as an “integral part of the oath.”
Asked what he considered the biggest challenge going into his second year at FIU’s helm, Jessell cited the need to advocate for funds. FIU relies on money from federal and state sources along with private donors. Among those in attendance: Miami philanthropists Trish and Dan Bell, who recently gifted the majority of the money for a nondenominational chapel to be built at the Modesto Maidique Campus, off Southwest Eighth Street and 112th Avenue near Sweetwater.
Jeanette Núñez, the lieutenant governor of Florida and an FIU graduate, also attended the induction.
“I’m honored and thrilled that we have President Jessell to continue leading the charge ... I am confident that with his background and his passion, he’ll continue to work collaboratively, but that he’ll also fight for FIU in the halls of Tallahassee and in the halls of DC.,” she said.
Universities usually hold investitures — centuries-old traditions — during the first year or after the first year of a presidency to give new presidents a chance to prove themselves.
Already during Jessell’s short tenure, FIU has hit milestones, including the law school ranking third in the state — higher than the private University of Miami School of Law for the first time ever, and FIU medical school partnering with Baptist Health South Florida.
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Academic investitures typically represent a symbolical passing of a torch from one leader to the next, but at FIU, the investitures feature an actual torch.
At one point, an alumnus, the Student Government president, a professor and two administrators passed down a “torch of knowledge” from the back of the convocation center, down a middle aisle and up to the stage.
Modesto Maidique and Rosenberg, both past presidents, participated in the processional and recessional.
The ceremony, which started with the “Fanfare for the Common Man” by Aaron Copland performed by the Wertheim FIU Marching Band, lasted for about two hours.
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Among the attendees were Madeline Pumariega, president of Miami Dade College, Florida Memorial University President Jaffus Hardrick and Rudy Fernandez, executive vice president for external affairs and strategic initiatives and chief of staff at the University of Miami, as well as administrators from Boston College, New York University, the University of Florida, Princeton, Harvard and Miami-Dade County Public Schools.
In his speech, FIU board chair Dean Colson called Jessell “the right person at the right moment” to guide FIU, and one of the “humblest humans” he knows.
For his part, Jessell spent most of his 22-minute-long speech thanking others.