Monday, September 25, 2023

Kelly Resigns from FAU and Boca Scales Back Park Project

What to make of Florida Atlantic University President John Kelly’s announcement that he will resign at the end of the year?

On the one hand, it’s not surprising. Kelly started in 2014. University presidents nationwide have been serving shorter and shorter tenures. As of 2017, according to the American Council on Education, the average was 6.5 years.

On the other hand, Kelly said he would take a new role at FAU after resigning. But Monday’s email announcement contained no details about what that job would be. In addition, the state university system is under the sort of political attack that we haven’t seen in Florida since the 1950s.

This year, the Legislature required tenured professors to come up for review every five years. Last year, Tallahasssee considered legislation that would have shifted tenure awards from presidents to boards of trustees. Given the push by Gov. DeSantis and the Board of Education, whose members the governor appoints, to restrict what students are taught from kindergarten though college, there is suspicion that the tenure change is designed to purge certain viewpoints.

FAU President John Kelly

And as the Seeking Rents website reported, the Legislature this year drafted but did not introduce a bill to shift the hiring of professors to the trustees. The governor also appoints them. The proposal recalls the infamous Johns Committee of the Legislature that from 1956 to 1965 went after alleged communists at the University of Florida.

Last year, UF tried to prohibit three professors from testifying in a lawsuit against the state’s new, restrictive voting law that elections supervisors of both parties opposed. The administration told the professors that, because DeSantis and the GOP-dominated Legislature support the law, testifying would be “adverse to the university’s interest.” UF later backed down.

Kelly’s departure means that six of the state university system’s 12 schools are seeking permanent presidents. This year, the Legislature allowed search committees to keep secret the names of applicants until the search is nearly over. That change could mute opposition to a politically connected insider.

Last year, for example, word leaked early that former Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran was calling in favors to become the president of Florida State University. He didn’t make the list of finalists. The trustees chose Richard McCullough, who had been vice provost at Harvard.

Kelly stabilized FAU after the disastrous presidency of Mary Jane Saunders. One of her last acts was to drive her car into a student who was protesting the decision to award football stadium naming rights for $6 million to GEO Group, the Boca Raton-based private prison company.

Having come from Clemson University, Kelly wanted to make FAU—historically a commuter school—more like a four-year university. That includes athletics.

One of the largest gifts in FAU’s history led to the Schmidt Family Center for Academic and Athletic Excellence, which opened in 2021. Kelly hired Lane Kiffin, a big-time football coach who had fallen out of favor. Kiffin gave the Owls their first national ranking and two 11-win seasons. Next season, FAU will make its second move to a higher-rated conference.

Kelly also took over as the Board of Governors, which oversees the university system, was implementing the Legislature’s order to link university funding to performance metrics, not just enrollment. Each June, the universities must submit an “accountability plan” to the board. Kelly smartly embraced Tallahassee’s new politics.

FAU’s 2022 version, which the board will discuss at its meeting next week, calls the university “a model for diversity and globally relevant research.” According to the plan, FAU has increased the four-year graduation rate by 30 percent since 2014 for students who are the first in their families to attend college.

When the report says FAU has “shifted the academic culture,” it refers to the increased support programs to keep students on track. I remember being told how the university had posted staff members in parking garages and used other means to track down students who were in danger of falling behind.

Overall, though, FAU’s graduation rate has risen incrementally. The six-year rate between 2015 and 2021 was 54 percent. Between 2011 and 2017, it was 51 percent. The goal is 58 percent by 2026.

One bright spot is the medical school. For the last three years, every graduate passed his or her license exam on the first try. The goal for the well-regarded nursing program is to have the same pass rate. It was 100 in 2017 but dipped to 83 percent in 2021, likely because of the pandemic.

Enrollment last year was nearly 30,000 across all of FAU’s campuses. About 25,000 students are undergraduates, with the rest in graduate programs. Projections don’t show significantly higher enrollment as far out as 2026.

Kelly’s energy has been good for FAU. The trustees picked him on merit. The choice of his successor will show whether merit still beats out politics.

Boca to scale back Lake Wyman Project

Boca Raton will scale back the Lake Wyman/Rutherford Park project because of higher than expected costs.

At their June 14 workshop meeting, city council members learned that a project budgeted for $5.6 million had come back with a bid for $15.5 million. Even with inflation and pandemic-era supply chain issues, that was a stunner.

The original plan envisioned a rebuilt and expanded boardwalk at Rutherford Park that would connect it to the adjacent Lake Wyman Park. There would be kayak trails, pavilions and a walking trail. It was part of the citywide plan to increase public access to the waterfront, in this case the Intracoastal Waterway.

The project was complicated from the start, requiring county and state permits. But the result would restore an asset that Boca Raton had allowed to deteriorate. That’s why Councilwoman Yvette Drucker said, “I don’t want to take anything out.” But neither did any council member want to spend $15.5 million.

City Manager Leif Ahnell proposed that the city rebid the project. The boardwalk alone, he said, was estimated to cost $8 million. Ahnell added that lumber prices already had dropped dramatically since the city asked for bids. “I’m very confident,” Ahnell said, that the price would come way down. With that updated number, he added, council members could better choose what stays in the project and what comes out.

Some council members asked about phasing in some of the essential work, just to show the public progress. Ahnell didn’t see much benefit to that. So a new bid will go out.

Performing arts center considered for Mizner

bradec performing arts center
Boca Arts Campus rendering; photo courtesy of Luxigon Los Angeles

On tonight’s Boca Raton Planning and Zoning Board agenda are the agreements to lease a vacant lot in Mizner Park for a performing arts center. If the board approves, the lease could go to the city council next month.

More measures to prevent railroad deaths

railroad crossing sign
Photo by Jan Sents on Unsplash

Developments continue in the fight to keep people from killing themselves on railroad tracks.

The Federal Railway Administration is sending Florida $2 million for enhanced safety education. Brightline, Tri-Rail and Amtrak will share the money. According to the federal government, there are roughly 400 “trespass fatalities” each year involving people illegally on train tracks.

Brightline separately struck a deal with the Broward County Sheriff’s Office for added monitoring at crossings. The first wave brought 540 tickets, 25 of which were to pedestrians walking around closed gates. No Brightline fatality has been linked to improper train operation or faulty gates. A sheriff’s spokeswoman said South Floridians need to understand that Brightline trains move faster than freight trains.

Lawsuit proceeds for Corey Jones’ death

From the Corey Isle Groundbreaking, photo via Delray Beach CRA

A federal judge has allowed the lawsuit by the family of Corey Jones to proceed.

Jones, who worked for the Delray Beach Housing Authority and whose family still lives in the city, was killed in 2015 by then-Palm Beach Gardens police officer Nouman Raja. Jones’ family is seeking damages from the city for failing to properly train Raja.

As the trial that ended with his conviction on manslaughter and attempted first-degree murder charges showed, Raja did everything wrong when he approached Jones’ van, which had broken down on an Interstate 95 exit ramp. U.S. District Judge Robert Scola’s ruling doesn’t mean that the Joneses will win. It does mean that the family has a chance to win.


I wrote last week about the Boca Raton City Council reimbursing Andrea O’Rourke Levine for legal costs she incurred responding to a complaint stemming from the 2021 election.

In that item, I said that O’Rourke had sent out an email endorsing Drucker and Monica Mayotte using her city address. The endorsement came in the form of a newsletter from her personal email address. The Florida Elections Commission found that the complaint had no legal sufficiency.

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Randy Schultz
Randy Schultz
Randy Schultz, a native of Hartford, Connecticut, has been a South Florida journalist since 1974. He worked for The Miami Herald until 1976 and for The Palm Beach Post from 1976 until 2014, where he served as managing editor and editorial page editor. Since 2014, he has written a politics blog, commentaries and other articles for Boca magazine. His writing has earned first-place awards from the Florida Magazine Association and the Florida Society of Newspaper Editors. Randy has lived in Boca Raton with his wife, Shelley Huff-Schultz, since 1985. His son, daughter-in-law and their three children also live in Boca Raton.

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