“Sometimes, I have to pinch myself to believe that this is really happening,” said Dr. Kenneth Jessell, who was appointed president of Florida International University (FIU) in Miami, Florida, in November 2022. “It’s truly an honor of a lifetime to be leading FIU.”
Although Dr. Jessell officially became FIU’s president a bit over a year ago, he has served as the university’s interim president since Jan. 21, 2022. After 13 years with FIU—as Senior Vice President for Finance and Administration and CFO—he suddenly found himself in this new position, after FIU’s longtime president, Mark Rosenberg, resigned.
Dr. Jessell never saw it coming—first, the offer to be FIU’s interim president at a moment’s notice, and then becoming its president. “I never had the desire to be in higher education,” he said about his pre-college years.
Dr. Jessell was the first in his family to go to college. His father had joined the Navy during World War II and subsequently had a career in law enforcement, while his mother was a stay-at-home mom.
At that time, Dr. Jessell had little sense of the world of higher education. He entered Florida State University as a political science major with the possibility of going into law. Then, a job offer with Electronic Data Systems (a company founded by the former presidential candidate, Ross Perot) prompted him to seek an MBA at FSU (Florida State University). “I wanted to learn about business,” he said.
It was only during his MBA, when he had the opportunity to student-teach, that he developed an interest in academia. “I loved what I was doing there, so I decided I wanted a career in higher education,” said Dr. Jessell, who went on to obtain a Doctor of Philosophy Degree in Finance from FSU.
An Academic Career
Dr. Jessell’s academic career began at Florida Atlantic University as assistant professor in the Department of Finance and Real Estate. There, he built up a 26-year career, with the last part as vice president for financial affairs. When he came to FIU in 2009, he began as senior vice president for finance and administration and CFO. Then, he became interim president, and now, president.
“To think that I am the president of the 5th largest public university in the country, ranked the 4th best public university in the country by the Wall Street Journal, and located in the most dynamic city in the country!” said Dr. Jessell about his new position. “It’s more than a job. It’s a passion, a way of life. Higher education is in my DNA. I’m loving every moment of it.”
Dr. Jessell has clearly come a long way since he graduated high school. Understandably, like one-third of FIU’s students, he was a first-generation South Floridian who could never have known the path that education would open for him. Now, “education is key” and, as president, he’s determined to give students at FIU all he’s got.
As Interim President
When Dr. Jessell first became interim president, he had a lot of work to do. “I wanted to reassure our community that we would continue the momentum that had been in place,” he said. “We reiterated the support systems we had in place for students, faculty, and staff. I also had a couple of listening sessions with them to make sure we had in place all the policies and procedures for people to report harassment and discrimination.”
For a man who never expected to be president, he is more than qualified. With 13 years as FIU’s financial leader, he knows how to give his constituents a good return on their investment.
Focused on Student Success
“When I came in as interim president, I had the benefit of having participated in the last three strategic plans of the university. I knew our objectives,” said Dr. Jessell. “Since I’ve been here, we’ve being keenly focused on the success of our students. We have seen tremendous improvements in retention rates, graduation rates, student job outcomes, salaries upon graduation, and life skills education.”
Dr. Jessell’s remarks were echoed by the Wall Street Journal, which ranked FIU among America’s Best Colleges, as 29th in the country and 4th among public universities. What’s even more remarkable is that FIU has achieved this with one-third of students as first-generation, 45 percent Pell recipients, and a majority minority student population. Of 54,037 undergraduate, graduate, and non-degree students, 64 percent are Hispanic, 11 percent are Black or African American, and more than eight percent are international students (according to FIU’s Fall 2023 statistics).
The U.S. News and World Report also listed dozens of FIU’s programs among the best in the nation, including international business as No. 2. In addition, graduates of its College of Law boasted the highest pass rate on the Florida Bar Exam.
In terms of student retention, the projected four-year graduation rate for all first-time college students in the 2019-20 cohort is 63.8 percent, and for Hispanics is 65.1 percent (“When I first came here, the four-year graduation rate was 40 percent in 2013,” said Dr. Jessell).
The first- and second-year retention rate for all full-time college students for the 2021-22 cohort was 91.8 percent, and 93.1 percent for Hispanic full-time, first-generation students.
Supporting First-Generation Students
Dr. Jessell attributes his school’s success to its keen attention to students’ needs, especially those of first-generation and Pell Grant students.
“Everything we do has first-generation success woven into it. We make dreams come true,” said Jessell as he listed numerous programs. These include their First Scholar’s Institution, TRIO Student Support Services, First-Generation Scholarship Program, and their Golden Scholars Program, a six-week residential bridge program.
In addition, FIU seeks improvements in ineffective curricula by looking at data. It has identified 17 critical gateway courses with high enrollments and failure rates, which impact student dropout rates and graduation delays.
FIU’s Center for the Advancement of Teaching (CAT) was devised to improve course design and teaching for better student outcomes. For example, when student failure rate was at 70 percent in calculus, FIU worked with faculty to offer more effective teaching practices, explained Dr. Jessell. As a result, calculus now has passing rates of 60 percent.
Also, FIU offers students a Mastery Math Lab, which consists of three labs across campuses where mentors assist their peers in math using evidence-based techniques.
When it comes to Hispanics, FIU boasts a large percentage of diverse Hispanic populations. In 2022, FIU was recertified for the Seal of Excelencia, a national certification that recognizes colleges and universities demonstrating positive momentum for student outcomes and intentionality in serving Hispanic and Latino students. The seal was first awarded to FIU back in 2019.
Hispanics benefit from school initiatives that address students at large. In addition, FIU has a variety of Hispanic organizations. These include the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers, Association of Latino Professionals for America, Latin American Dance Club, Cuban Heritage Society, Cuban American Association of Civil Engineers, Ecuadorian Student Organization, Latino Medical Student Association, National Association of Hispanic Journalists BBC, Latino Sororities and Fraternities, Sabor Latino, and, for faculty, the Hispanic Faculty Association.
A Future Vision
As Dr. Jessell leads FIU into the future, he’s got his attention on its 2025-2030 strategic plan. He will do what he does best: listen to input from all constituents. Yet, he will also aim to achieve his vision of building FIU as a leader in three specific domains: the environment and environmental resilience, health, and innovation and technology.
“There will be opportunities for every area of the university to be involved,” said the president. “How can we build things that are stronger and more resilient to wind and water, especially here in South Florida? How can art and performance help with autism and mental health issues? And with artificial intelligence, we will need to incorporate it into all curricula.”
Only the future will tell whether Dr. Jessell can actualize his vision for FIU. Yet, if he takes his own advice—designed for those first-generation students who are like he was—he may very well accomplish his goals.
“Never, ever, ever give up. You can do it!” he concluded. “You are going to stumble. It’s okay to fail, but it’s not okay to give up.” •