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University of North Florida President John Delaney and John Barnes at the grand opening of the Student Union in the fall of 2009. Barnes was student government president at the time.
Jax Daily Record Friday, Mar. 10, 201712:00 PM EST

John Delaney's legacy as University of North Florida president has been built on more than just numbers

by: Marilyn Young

When you walk around the University of North Florida campus, the most obvious changes since John Delaney became president are the physical ones.

The Student Union, the epicenter of campus life, features restaurants, a 6,000-seat amphitheater and the Center for Student Media.

Osprey Fountains, a 1,000-student housing complex, packed with amenities, including a lazy river pool.

And the College of Education and Human Services Building, home to classrooms, teaching labs and an education conference center.

Those buildings are part of the 2 million square feet of space added to UNF since Delaney took over in 2003.

The former Jacksonville mayor used his political relationships to help secure $187 million in construction funding from the state at a time when Florida lawmakers were tight-fisted with those dollars.

But it’s the relationships he built on campus that are the intangible parts of the legacy Delaney will leave when he retires as president in May 2018.

The charismatic Delaney was popular among the students almost from the beginning.

The faculty was a tougher nut to crack.

Unlike most university presidents in the early 2000s, Delaney didn’t have an academic background, which was disconcerting to many professors.

But, as he has regularly done, Delaney was able to assuage most of his critics.

‘Not that different’

Delaney said he has faced skeptics from the beginning of his career.

When he was named chief assistant by State Attorney Ed Austin, he was the youngest one in Florida. When he left six years later, he was still the youngest.

A couple of days after his 39th birthday, he became one of the youngest Jacksonville mayors in the previous century.

“I’ve had people who have doubted me my whole life,” he said.

Coming to UNF was like his childhood, where he was always the new kid because his family moved around a lot.

“So you get used to knowing, ‘OK, I’ve got to figure out how to make this work,’” Delaney said.

And he did.

As his longtime assistant, Sherry Sands, pointed out a few months into his tenure at UNF, “They say it’s different, but it’s really not that different.”

A budget is a budget and motivating people and focusing on a direction are the same.

As mayor, he had to build consensus in the community and with City Council.

As UNF president, he needed to build it with the students and the faculty. He encountered different reactions along those paths.

Listening to students

With the students, it was about listening to them and including them in decision-making.

Delaney has standing meetings with the student government president about every two weeks and “any other time they want to meet.” The student president is part of the university’s board of trustees.

The regular meetings were invaluable to Caleb Grantham and John Barnes, two former student leaders.

“It wasn’t just a ‘how are you?’ kind of conversation,” said Grantham, who served April 2016-February. “He was genuinely looking for input.”

If the students wanted something, Delaney was ready to try to work it out, he said. Always looking for a way to say yes.

Grantham said students were concerned about the condition of the nature trails on campus.

When he shared that with Delaney, they eventually found a solution. The student government provided $200,000 for the project, which Delaney agreed to match. They are working on the bid process, Grantham said.

Barnes, who served two terms from 2008-10, recalled how Delaney let students help design the Student Union, as well as decide who to name the rooms after and which entities were housed there.

“John Delaney never called us kids. We were always students,” he said. “At the end of the day, he treated us like shareholders in a company.”

Barnes was student body president when the discussions began for the new Student Wellness Complex. He said Delaney discovered if a student committee would approve a new fee, they could bond the money to pay for one of the phases.

Barnes cited other highlights in Delaney’s tenure: President Barack Obama’s visit during the 2016 presidential election; the school hosting a 2012 presidential debate; and the men’s basketball team’s landing its first trip to the NCAA tournament.

Delaney also helped Barnes as he was considering whether to go to law school and was put on the wait list at the University of Florida Levin College of Law.

He said Delaney spent a day taking him to Gainesville to introduce him to the dean and professors, and to tour the campus.

“He took just some student, an average student, over there to try and help me in my pursuit to figure out if law school was right for me,” he said. “It was so selfless, so thoughtful. That’s just the kind of person he is.”

Barnes ultimately decided against law school but received a master’s at UF in political science.

Delaney said he listened to and learned from the students.

During the remodeling of the Robinson Library, the students wanted a coffee shop there. “And I get it because I always liked studying with coffee, too,” he said.

The university found a company to go into the facility but the students wanted Starbucks, which was going to cost several hundred thousand dollars more, Delaney said.

He tried to talk the students out of that decision, but they didn’t budge. The location is one of the best-selling sites in the chain, Delaney said.

“So, my lesson there was, they’re right, I’m not. And you just need to listen to them,” he said.

Delaney also listened — and paid the extra staffing costs — when students wanted the library to stay open 24 hours a day a couple of weeks before finals.

And each new building now includes cubbyholes off the hallways that give students a place to study but still be connected to what’s going on.

Those compromises helped cement the relationship between Delaney and the students.

Winning over the faculty was a more difficult battle.

Working with faculty

Professor Judy Solano had been at UNF more than two decades when Delaney was a candidate to lead the university.

Her first reaction to his candidacy? “It was not real positive,” she recalled.

Solano felt UNF continued to need a president with an academic background to guide the school in its development.

It wasn’t personal, she said. In fact, Solano thought Delaney had done a good job as mayor.

“I didn’t think he was right for UNF at the time,” said Solano, who was vice president of the faculty association then.

The president of a university the size of UNF could have substantial impact on its future, unlike at a large institution such as UF, she said.

“I likened it to a small sailboat, anything a person does or does not do could impact its course,” said Solano, who retired in 2012.

She spoke out against Delaney’s candidacy before the board of trustees. Shortly after he was selected for the job, Solano became president of the faculty association and met regularly with Delaney.

“I think at first they (the meetings) were a little awkward for him,” she said.

But Solano said she soon discovered Delaney was easy to talk with and get to know. He also made her comfortable in speaking her mind.

“I never had to worry what I said might come back on me,” she said.

The biggest conflict came fairly early in Delaney’s tenure when he selected a provost the faculty association opposed.

The provost’s selection was crucial, Solano said, because that person was going to be the academic leader Delaney couldn’t be “because he was too new to the game.”

Delaney replaced the provost about 15 months later.

Solano said Delaney broke the ice with faculty members by being open, honest and making them feel comfortable. After the first year, the relationship began to gel.

“It was clear he wasn’t going to come in like a bull in a china shop and tell us how to run our business,” she said.

Delaney focused on his strengths as an administrator and his governmental connections, she said, and the faculty leadership and new provost provided leadership in the academic realm.

Solano and Delaney became friends. He laughs as he talks about one key difference that remains.

Several years into his tenure at UNF, Delaney sent Solano an email that included this question: “Will I ever be forgiven for having the lack of a Ph.D.?”

Her response, he said: “In a word, no.”

More than numbers

It’s easy to measure a university president’s impact through statistics. For Delaney, those include:

• Increasing the grade point average of incoming freshmen from 3.6 in the fall of 2003 to 4.17 this past fall.

• Raising $250 million since 2003 and growing the endowment to $100 million.

• Increasing enrollment by 14 percent to 15,985 at what was once considered a commuter campus.

But for many who worked with him, it goes beyond the numbers.

Delaney’s impact was made through the collegial working relationships built on mutual respect.

He has said he hasn’t decided what he’ll do next but Barnes said if Delaney’s plans include running for office, he will help.

“I’ll write the first check, ring doorbells and make calls,” he said.

Grantham is happy he will be part of Delaney’s final graduation ceremony in 2018.

“It’s a nice way to wrap things up,” he said.

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