FAU's new president, Dr. John Kelly, freshly re-located to the school's Boca Raton campus and two weeks into the job, invited us in last Tuesday for a 15-minute sitdown. Our time with the well-spoken and gracious South Carolina native stretched into half an hour.
We had hoped to focus on two things: the unresolved dispute around Dr. Deandre Poole (the deceptively labeled "Stomp on Jesus" affair) and faculty discontent over salary and hiring practices. Dr. Kelly begged off detailed discussion of either, saying he had not yet had time to familiarize himself with those matters. We did touch on them both in general terms. Here's how it went:
New Times: I don't know if you've seen the Faculty Senate's report on the Dr. Poole affair.
John Kelly: "I'm not familiar with all the details. I do know there was an incident that was not received well.
That's an understatement...There was immense political pressure and the professor's claims that he was physically threatened by a student were never fully investigated. The school caved.
JK: Let me read through [the report] and try to understand better.
Can you say something about your commitment to academic freedom when dealing with controversial subjects?
JK: Sure. We have freedom of speech and we have academic freedom and those are two very important rights. If we're going to exercise those, you hope that you're using colleagues and friends, bouncing ideas off of each other, trying to understand the best way to present something. I know I learn a lot that way, bouncing ideas off someone and they say "Oh, I wouldn't say it that way. Maybe you can say it differently."...I hope we're creating a culture where we're nurturing each other. I hope we're focussed on the future, not the past. Obviously, we've got to take care of things if they're not being done properly. We need to keep moving forward and not remind ourselves every day about past problems.
But past is prelude. It appears to me the school has obligations to faculty to assure their physical safety. It's quite clear this matter was not fully investigated, because of political pressure. Do you feel the Board of Trustees is ready to stand up to the Governor and Senators, as was the case with Dr. Poole?
JK: Unfortunately I don't have a clue how to answer that. I haven't seen the Board in that situation. I don't really know if they stood up or didn't stand up or how they handled that specifically. But I can tell you this: I'm very impressed with the Board we have. They seem very focused on the university's success and moving it forward. We haven't spoken about this specific issue you've brought up. But in general the Board is extremely focused on the university becoming a successful national university.
Faculty appear to be not all that happy with their pay. The faculty union has commissioned a study [we give him a copy] that supports their claims resources are not being allocated to the best advantage of academics.
Media Relations: Since Dr. Kelly would need time to digest this material can we address this in a more general way?
Sure. What's your thinking about how to allocate budget between administrative functions and faculty salaries?
JK: You clearly want faculty compensated at a rate that is fair -- fair market. Administrative pay has always been in a different bracket. You have to benchmark against cohorts. If you're hiring a general counsel you look at what other general counsel are paid. If you're hiring a vice president of student affairs you look at that going rate. A senior medical scientist, the pay is going to be quite different from a beginning horticulture professor, which is what I was at one time. I think you have to understand the market. What we used to do [at Clemson, where Dr. Kelly was previously] was define a peer group -- similar type of university, similar portfolio of course work -- and there's a study published out of Oklahoma that gives you a report on almost every university in the country, and you can benchmark on exactly where you stand. At Clemson we benchmarked and found our mean was below the national mean. And we made a decision to correct pay because of this. It was all merit-based, though. We corrected to the mean, but it doesn't mean everyone got the same raise. So it may have been that only half the people got a raise -- some were above the mean and some below. The mean was compared to what, the whole national pool?
JK: It was done relative to a peer group. We were engineering-oriented. We had benchmarks of where our faculty stood next to national faculty. That doesn't mean everybody in the university is equal. You have high performers and lower performers. Higher performers, if you want to keep them you have to compensate them.
How do you distinguish higher performers from lower performers?
JK: The traditional department head reviews. Post-tenure reviews. Deans' reviews. You compare to what others in the field produce.
It seems highly subjective.
JK: Most evaluations are. You have to have sound evaluation system, though...If you don't have documentation of performance people have no way to benchmark themselves for improvements.
How much input do faculty have in devising the evaluation system?
JK: Usually quite a lot.
Is that the case at FAU?
JK: I don't know. But typically peer review committees typically start with the faculty. Then it moves to the administrative levels. In a way, your peers are your judges...We can say academia is different but we also know a lot of the criteria for success: If you're a researcher, what is your research program. How many refereed papers are published. If you're in economics, one paper every two years might be good. If you're in sciences, three papers per year. How many grad students have you had. What were the successes of those students -- did they go on to an academic job or quit because of problems working with you. How many grant dollars did you bring in. Were you able to help support your students. Did you build a nationally renowned program. Are you editor of a journal. Do you review papers. While we can say academics are hard to evaluate it's not as hard as people think. You try to come up with something as numerical as possible but at the end of the day there's still a subjective feel. A "team player," what does that mean? Is it a backslapper or is it someone who helps colleagues move along? Some of it's going to be subjective.
The school's overall vision seems to correlate to Governor Scott's thing about "jobs." That seems to be his bottom line. Will the school's commitment to STEM ["Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics"] detract from its commitment to the liberal arts?
JK: I don't think so. But I will tell you that agenda matches mine. The STEM agenda.
JK: The STEM agenda. There's a very important, another kind of STEM agenda I'm intrigued by, called STEAM, that adds the "A" in there which is arts. And what arts does is -- and I've seen this happen -- you take an engineering-focussed student, high math and technology skills, they maybe would benefit from more creative thinking, need to branch out to the other side of the brain to get a little more of an artistic flavor. When that flavor is introduced that person may become quickly a very creative entrepreneur using the highly technical background. So I don't think we would ever want to say we're only going to do STEM and we're only going to do STEAM. The workforce demands are pretty high now for universities, not just to have fields of interest but to get jobs once they graduate. And FAU right now does really well on that end. Our placement rates are among the highest of any university in the state. You look at the starting salaries of our kids coming out, it's the highest, or second-highest.
Media Relations: It's $35,000 a year.
JK: You want to have thinkers in your university, You want to have leaders. And you want to have entrepreneurs too. If there's a way to put all those things into one person -- you learn to think through the liberal arts, you become a leader through undergraduate research projects. An entrepreneur doesn't have to start their own company. They could be inside a company and consistently have good ideas that move things further in the marketplace. [Governor Scott's] viewpoint is not inconsistent with what I have as a viewpoint. It's not so much "jobs, jobs, jobs" as it is "career, career, career." What is it you want to do? How do we help you prepare to do that? It could be a schoolteacher. Or a business leader.
That's not, however, the vision of a classic liberal arts education. Maybe it's an outdated notion but that's not about jobs but about the development of the individual and their appreciation of what it means to be a human being. Are those higher goals going to be cast aside?
JK: I don't think they're inconsistent. You're still exposed to the liberal arts and you're still exposed to colleagues majoring in the liberal arts. It's also critical, though, if you're going to fill any of these jobs, to have people who are highly technically trained. Take computer science. There's no way I'm going to become a computer scientist but I'm glad those people are there. To me, the idea that this is exclusive and that's exclusive is inconsistent with a STEM approach. There are some really high-paying jobs technical skills are needed for. And if we don't provide those we're not going to have the benefits of the things those people can create for society. You're still going to have lots of opportunities for people to do other things. My son was a theater major. He loved it. Loved it. And then you have to get a job. Now he's an econ major and he's doing calculus. It's taking the left brain and the right brain and there's a place these two can meet.
Fire Ant -- an invasive species, tinged bright red, with an annoying, sometimes-fatal sting -- covers public affairs and culture in Palm Beach County and elsewhere. Got feedback or a tip? Contact [email protected].