As the new president of Florida Atlantic University, John Kelly will be charged with turning around an institution that has become better known in recent years for its setbacks than successes.
Graduation rates and alumni giving at FAU are among the lowest in the state. State funding has dropped $79 million in the past six years, and a state plan to allocate money based on performance could penalize FAU even more. FAU has also been plagued with embarrassing headlines in the past year, ranging from controversial actions of faculty members to the failed effort to name the stadium after a prison company to a football coach fired amid allegations of drug use.
But Kelly, 59, a vice president at Clemson University who was appointed Friday, sees a much brighter future for FAU. He said its past problems don't have to define the university.
"You get past it," he said. "The way we get past it is to repopulate in people's minds all the great things FAU is doing."
Kelly cited successes such as housing two biotech giants, The Scripps Research Institute and Max Planck Society, on the Jupiter campus. FAU has an undergraduate research program, which he said he is unique among universities.
But FAU is also facing criticism and a potential loss in state funding due to its dismal graduation rates. Just 40 percent of first time freshmen earn a degree within six years, second lowest only to Florida A&M University in Tallahassee.
Graduation rates are one of several factors the State University System's Board of Governors will use this year to determine which schools qualify for performance funding. Universities which score toward the bottom may lose out not only on extra performance money, but also could get their regular state allocation reduced.
Mori Hosseini, the new chairman of the Board of Governors, blasted the low graduation rates last week.
"That's completely unacceptable and obviously you have work to do," he said to officials at FAU and FAMU.
Kelly said improving graduation rates would be his top academic priority.
"This needs to be fixed, so people can not point to that as a weakness of FAU when they compare you to the rest," Kelly told the Board of Trustees during his interview Friday. "I'm sure there are some good reasons, but it should not be happening at the level it's happening."
He said the university may need to start preparing students to graduate in three years, instead of four, using summer school and online classes to help students finish quicker. He said the university also needs to make sure there are enough classes each semester so that it doesn't cause delays.
FAU is also facing a challenge with state funding, with its budget cut $79 million in the past six years. Kelly said state cuts are expected to continue, and legislators will expect universities to tap into other sources of funding.
FAU has struggled with fundraising, with two large gifts rescinded in recent years. Businessman Barry Kaye withdrew most of his $16 million gift to the College of Business in 2009, blaming tough economic times. The GEO Group, a Boca Raton prison operator, withdrew a $6 million gift last year following student protests.
Just 1 percent of alumni donate to the university, by far the lowest rate among state universities.
He said the university should use its stadium, lifelong learning programs, arts and entertainment and other community events to draw alumni to campus.
"We need to get these people re-engaged," he said. "If you take pride in your university, you talk about it all the time.''
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