Diego Diaz | Asst. News Director
Under an atmosphere of uncertainty regarding the future of higher education in Florida, FIU President Kenneth A. Jessell was officially sworn into office on Thursday, May 19.
Held in the Ocean Bank Convocation Center, the investiture ceremony would feature speakers from local and state politics, each speech lauding Jessell’s character, and FIU’s development under his leadership, also including former presidents Mark B. Rosenberg and Modesto Maidique.
“He has a calming spirit and a heart that is so large and considerate, said Daniella Levine Cava, mayor of Miami-Dade County. “I can think of no one more qualified to continue to lead South Florida’s largest university to its bright future as a world-class institution.”
“He stepped up and led when we needed him the most”
As hinted by Levine Cava, Jessell’s rise was nothing short of surprising, having taken over as interim president following former president Mark B. Rosenberg’s abrupt resignation on Jan. 21, 2022, as a result of a workplace harassment investigation. Jessell had previously served as FIU’s Chief Financial Officer, joining FIU in 2009.
During the presidential search, Jessell became the sole finalist recommended by the presidential search committee after all other candidates removed themselves because they wanted to be the sole candidate considered.
Moreover, Jessel had originally planned on stepping down once the presidential search was complete but had a change of heart following a breakfast with Board of Trustees Vice Chair and then-presidential search committee lead, Roger Tovar.
“Today I express my gratitude for their commitment to this process. I especially want to thank Roger Tovar for the instrumental role he played in selecting the next president of this great institution,” said Board of Trustees chair Dean Colson.
Ray Rodriguez, Chancellor of the State University System of Florida would highlight the investiture as especially unique due to Jessell’s in-house promotion.
“It’s even more special because this is a member of your family that you are watching assume the leadership role,” said Rodriguez.
Yet, this nomination process did not come without controversy, thanks to Senate Bill 520, a bill that barred university presidential applicants from public record until the selection of the final three candidates.
As a result, the faculty Senate had concerns about the process which led to Jessell’s nomination during a November 2022 session that saw the inclusion of Tovar and Jessell.
Notably, it was trepidation about the process itself – not whether Jessell was qualified to be president.
More shockingly, however, was the moment of praise received by former president Rosenberg, as FIU had up until recently been reluctant to cite the former president’s accomplishments, due to his controversial expulsion from office, and equally controversial retention as research staff.
“Those who have occupied this office since continued our founder’s legacy and two of them are here today,” said Jessell. “Dr. Mark B. Rosenberg, our fifth president, served from 2009 to 2022. His focus on student success set a standard for urban institutions. Thank you both for being here today.”
This optimistic framing utilized in retelling the events that led to Jessell’s nomination would also be seen while discussing the current atmosphere of higher education in Florida.
Colson, Levine Cava, and Florida Lieutenant Governor Jeanette Núñez would all frame FIU’s recent accomplishments, including the FIU law school’s recent outranking of the University of Miami among others as signs of FIU’s continued upward trajectory.
Though development was the key point, it took precedence over diversity – an until recently celebrated aspect of FIU life. Recently passed Florida Senate Bill 266 may have shaped that.
The bill, signed into law May 15, is a massive restructuring of the Florida higher education system, including the dismantling of diversity, equity, and inclusion bureaucracy; prohibiting curriculum from utilizing “Critical Theory” and stripping faculty committees of agency in the faculty hiring process.
Most notably, the legislation bars universities from directly utilizing DEI statements within hiring or enrollment documents, as well as banning universities from monetarily supporting any non-student DEI-based organization or programming.
“We are eliminating the DEI programs: we’re gonna treat people as individuals, we’re not gonna treat people as members of a group,” said Governor Ron DeSantis, during the signing of the bill.
In practice, universities are deterred from even mentioning statements that may be seen as supporting these policies, due to the potential repercussions.
During the investiture not once was FIU’s place as the largest minority-serving institution mentioned by any speaker, an aspect the school had previously touted in press releases not dissimilar to the university’s diversity statement.
In regards to academic freedom, the only reference would come from Jessell’s oath while being sworn in.
When asked about the implementation of SB 266, Jessell assured that the legislation must first go through the Board of Governors, during which it will receive both university and community input.
“I believe at the end of the day, we will have a quality regulation that still reflects the diversity of our institutions, diversity of our communities, the diversity of our employees and the importance of strengthening all of those that are so critical to our state,” said Jessel speaking to PantherNOW.
The answer is unlikely to satisfy the sizable undergraduate, graduate and faculty continuing to organize against the legislation and its implementation.
Since the filing of the legislation, there have been three protests against the bill and the FIU administration’s lack of response toward the potential impact of the regulation. The most recent of these protests was a sit-in during April’s BOT meeting.
Even with this active organization and notable apprehension by the FIU community towards the future of higher education, Jessell would still describe the FIU community as optimistic
“I humbly serve as the sixth president of this great institution with an overwhelming sense of optimism for what is possible for FIU in this new era of optimism I see every day in the faces of our dedicated students, faculty, and staff.”
Student Government Association President Alexander Sutton also attended the event as part of FIU’s Platform Party.
Speaking to PantherNOW following the investiture, Sutton would affirm student concerns while arguing that Jessell and the administration have been working tirelessly behind the scenes lobbying for changes.
“They did a lot of behind-the-scenes work to make sure the text of the bill is as pro-student as it can be,” said Sutton. “And it’s a lot better than the first draft and it’s not perfect and a lot of my students still are concerned.”
Sutton contended that the real impact of the undisclosed advocacy efforts will be seen in how the law is actually implemented.
“I told Ray Rodriguez that at the end of the day, the law is the law and we have to follow it but the devil is in the details.”
However, the student body president would echo the speakers in praising Jessell’s character, highlighting his empathetic approach as a notable reason for supporting his presidency.
“President Jessell has a way of making you feel important”, said Sutton during the interview. “He truly listens whenever he talks to you, and he is very careful to show that he understands every citizen of the Panther nation is valued.”
Additional reporting by Conor Moore.