University of North Florida President John Delaney became UNF’s fifth president after serving two terms as Jacksonville mayor, from 1995 to 2003. During his second term, voters approved a half-cent sales tax to support the Better Jacksonville Plan of capital improvements. Delaney also served with State Attorney and then Mayor Ed Austin, as Chief Assistant State Attorney, city General Counsel and the mayor’s office Chief of Staff. He earned his undergraduate and law degrees from the University of Florida. He met with the Daily Record editorial staff Monday.
What are your political aspirations?
(Laughs) I plan on retiring from UNF in eight or 10 years or so. I say that, recognizing that’s not entirely my call because the board and the faculty tend to fire presidents, but so far, relations in both cases have been really good.
I can see this being a last stop but at that time – I’ll be in my early 60s – maybe getting back into politics a little bit then. My field of vision is much smaller. Washington is pretty much off my list. I can’t see running for mayor again because that’s a particularly hard job that you don’t need to do twice. Maybe something in Tallahassee.
As (former Mayor and State Attorney) Ed Austin used to say, politics is about luck and timing. The luck and the timing would have to be right eight or 10 years from now.
Any plans for the House or Senate?
Not federal. The idea of moving to Washington, D.C., and campaigning across the state, I mean the federal House you have to be there forever to really be able to do anything. It’s just tough. The State level is a little more intriguing to me. And I don’t know why, but there’s a little different psychology about either one of those. I think on paper, I’ve spent a lot of time in Tallahassee back when I was a prosecutor and back when I was mayor. I kind of know my way around over there. I think voters could look at that and say there’s an area where there is a proficiency, even though I wasn’t an elected official.
The governor’s office?
You never know. Luck and timing.
What’s better, being the mayor or being the president of UNF?
If I was grading those, I’d do an A-plus either way but they’re different. It’s a really fulfilling thing to be mayor for two terms. You can move a lot of big levers and drive around and look at a lot of things and say ‘Hey, we really had a big impact on that.’
I also feel fulfilled out here. We’re graduating 3,000-3,500 people a year. In a lot of areas, the job is harder and in others, it’s easier.
The schedule is very inflexible. We’ve got alumni events, athletic events, booster events, student events, faculty events, university events, Tallahassee events. There’s a board and a foundation board. There are a lot of things you get pulled on. You get that also as mayor, but in a city the size of Jacksonville, people understand you can’t be at every event. At a university, they pretty much expect you to be there.
There’s no free lunch anywhere, but in some ways I was able to get away from being mayor a little easier than as university president. I would have thought the reverse. It may be just that I’m a little more Internet-savvy now and do more e-mails. As mayor, I didn’t do much e-mail.
What kind of report card would you give the Better Jacksonville Plan?
I’m very proud of the Better Jacksonville Plan. I think the public feels proud of the Better Jacksonville Plan. It has put a lot of people to work in the past 10 years.
It has made the road system much easier to get around. The public buildings Downtown I think are phenomenal. I went to the NCAA tournament at the Arena and it’s like you’re going into a luxury hotel to watch a sporting event, and the acoustics are terrific when you go to a concert there. I think the baseball park is one of the nicest I’ve ever been in. It just feels like one ought to feel, even a big league park. I think the library has the prettiest interior space in all of Jacksonville. I think that’s special.
I would have loved to have kept the original courthouse design that the mayor rejected. I think that was going to be a work of art as well.
It’s remarkable the amount of land acquisition and the percentage of our city that is preserved in park space.
What do you consider to be the greatest contribution the BJP has made to Jacksonville?
If you asked me that on different days, I’d probably have a different answer each day.
I think the buildings are special. Downtown development has stalled right now because of the economy, but Downtown is so different than it was 10 years ago. There’s the Berkman and the towers on the Southbank and 11 E and The Carling and the St. James and the revitalized Times-Union Center.
It’s easier to use the roads and we added sewer systems in neighborhoods. That has added to property values and stabilized those neighborhoods. The overpasses over the railroad tracks in the northwest quadrant have made that a far move livable community.
The commute from the beach is dramatically different.
I don’t think any of us really felt that half-cent increase and I think it’s made a lot better community.
Have you gotten an invitation to the opening of the new County Courthouse?
Not yet. I have driven by it and it looks like it’s coming along. Sam (Mousa, consultant on the project) tells me it will be under the revised budget.
What do you think is going to happen with the Jacksonville Jaguars?
I think Jacksonville is going to wake up one day and realize that the nightmare they thought they were dreaming about is a reality. If we don’t fill that stadium consistently, I don’t see how we can keep the team. I’m afraid we’re taking the team for granted as a community.
The simple fact of the matter is (owner) Wayne Weaver is in his 70s and has an estate tax issue, so it’s got to sell. The question is, would the new owner keep it in Jacksonville or not? If we’re not filling up the stadium, the new owner would have no choice but to move the team.
Why do you think Jacksonville is not supporting the team?
That’s a head-scratcher. The drop-off from the year before last to last year was 18,000 tickets. That’s far bigger than any other city.
People say you need to win. Well, not everybody wins all the time. Even when we were winning, we had a playoff game and didn’t sell out the stadium.
We’re not a super rich city and that has something to do with it. When you think of having to put 70,000 people in the stadium, that’s a huge percentage of the metropolitan population that has to be in one place on a Sunday afternoon or a Thursday night. You start taking out seniors and children, that’s a big percentage of the market.
Should the Jaguars draft Tim Tebow?
I love the guy. I really do. If you can’t make Tim Tebow an NFL player, I don’t think you should stay in the league.
I wouldn’t draft him to sell tickets. You might sell a couple of thousand more tickets. You’d get more attention that first year, but if he isn’t starting and winning, that disappears quickly and he’s just another NFL quarterback.
Did you have any requests to enter the mayor’s race?
Yeah, I would get that from people, but I never gave it serious thought. That’s a hard job. You live in a glass house and we have a habit of eating our mayors. It’s a tough town.
In view of the candidates who have announced so far, do you think the mayor’s race can be run in a positive fashion without negative campaigning?
No. I’d love it to be at least a civil debate, but you get behind a certain amount in the polls and Rule One is you go negative. Rule Two is negative works.
In 1995 when Mayor (Jake) Godbold and Mayor (Tommy) Hazouri and I and a few other candidates were running, we started out trying to go positive. We made it to the runoff, then I got ahead of Jake and 24 hours later there was a slew of negative ads. I didn’t have any money in the bank so I couldn’t go negative quick enough. We caught up the next week and we threw all kinds of money at each other.
Will you take a public stance on the mayor’s race?
No, not in the mayor’s race. I can’t see doing that. It’s too up close and personal. Jacksonville is the 13th most populated city. That’s a big-city mayor. It’s not one (a race) the UNF president can be involved in. I can get involved in the State elections because they are one step removed.
But there are two people - Audrey Moran and Rick Mullaney - who probably expect to get your vote.
Audrey and Rick are close, personal friends. That also makes it easy to stay out of it.
But you have to vote for someone.
Thank God for the Australian ballot.
What’s your take on the situation with the Human Rights Commission and the trouble that faced Dr. Ahmed’s nomination?
I’m very disappointed. I’m sure the people who have been involved think they’re doing the right thing, but it’s like the people who hung Clint Eastwood in ‘Hang ‘Em High.’ They thought they got the horse thief but they hung the wrong guy. They want to hang the wrong guy here.
If anybody has met Dr. Ahmed and spent five minutes with him, he sounds like a liberal Catholic priest. He’s a peaceful guy who talks about reconciliation and communication. That’s all he’s about. He’d have to be a heck of a double agent to be a terrorist under that skin.
It’s a little frightening to hear a City Councilman (Clay Yarborough) say he’s not sure whether or not he’d like to see a Muslim in public office. I think that’s a civil rights violation and I imagine he may hear from the U.S. Civil Rights Commission for saying that.
I’m a religious guy, but you can’t be a public official in the United States of America and think it’s only your faith that can serve.
It had the feel of a lynching. Jacksonville has been trying to run away from that backward Southern image for 50 years. There’s some on that Council that have a very stark view of what government should be. They want it to be Sparta, where all we do is have cops and firefighters patrol the streets. No museums, no symphonies, no parks. No kids playing on a swing set. No Little League baseball teams or libraries. What the hell kind of a city is that?
UNF has grown a lot since you became president. What’s next?
A couple of years ago, we actually rolled enrollment back. We had a drop of about 1,000 students when the State dropped our budget due to the recession.
We want the feel of a smaller, private school. The accepted folklore was that we would grow to about 25,000 students. With the economy and the rollback, we have pretty much frozen enrollment at 16,000 until we get new resources.
How many applicants a year do you turn away?
About 4,000 to 5,000 freshman we say ‘no’ to and a couple thousand more transfers. Those (the transfers) are kind of painful. Some go away to college and realize they miss home and their family. Some want to take a couple of classes over summer. We used to be very amenable to that.
We are not a commuter school. Our students have at least a 1200 on their SAT and a 3.7 grade point average. Twenty percent live on campus and we have 3,000 beds. It’s far more of a destination college instead of a commuter college.
We usually get pressure to add enrollment, but now that FCCJ has become a state college (Florida State College at Jacksonville) and offers bachelor’s degrees, they have become more of an outlet. The community needed a second public college or university to take the overflow.
How long will enrollment stay flat?
Until we get new resources.
How is the shift to Division I athletics going?
Terrific. The women’s tennis team just won the conference and out of about 6,000 to 8,000 Division I schools, we are No. 70. We are in the top 25 in men’s golf and the baseball team is second in the conference.
Will you add football while you are here?
I think I’ll be gone (before that happens). You pretty much have to have 25,000 to 30,000 students to make football go. We are in a college football hotbed, but the area is dominated by Florida and Florida State. I don’t think the area is ready for another Division I school (football team).
We have a $6 million athletic budget and that’s primarily through student fees, but we do have some sponsorships. We would have to double that to make football work. We would like to be at about $10 million.
Where are UNF’s students from?
About half are from Northeast Florida and then it goes out in bands from there. The next band goes out to Tallahassee, down to Gainesville and Daytona. The next band goes to the Panhandle and down to Orlando.
How many are from out of state?
A couple percent, and a couple percent are international. The State really raised out-of-state tuition and since 9-11 it’s been hard for international students to get visas.
Do you get recognized by students when you’re on campus?
A pretty good percentage, but there’s a pretty good percentage who don’t. I have to remind myself that about half our students came from Jacksonville and it’s not like the UNF president is on TV every night. I’d say around a third of the time. I just have never had anyone say anything rude. The worst I’ll get, as a joke, is, ‘Hey, parking is bad.’ But parking at universities is bad. But it really is a friendly campus.
Grade how the legislature has done this year, from an individual standpoint and university official standpoint.
I’d give them pretty high marks. I’d give them A’s last year and this year. They’re facing a budget crisis no Florida legislature has ever faced. Even in the Depression they didn’t face numbers like this. They’re rightfully resistant to wholesale increases in taxes, but last year they basically increased through fees and taxes $2 billion in revenue. I don’t feel like I am $2 billion poorer with things like cigarette taxes and admissions to parks and these kinds of things that have been pretty long neglected. I think they’ve been pretty brave. Next year is where we will really see their valor because next year is even worse. Tough times all around, but I’d give them high marks.
How many times have you been to Tallahassee this year?
Four or five times. I was just there last week and typically go every other week from February through the end of session. Last year when I was wearing the interim chancellor’s hat as well, of course, I was there every week.
What was your stand on Senate Bill 6?
I went back and forth. I liked it up front. I support tenure in higher education, but I don’t think the school system had adequately dealt with performance issues in K-12. It takes multiple years to get rid of a poorly performing teacher and that’s just criminal.
I’ve talked to a number of principals and I’ve asked them if they know who is a good teacher and who isn’t in their school and they all say ‘Yes. Everybody knows who just gives study hall and not working hard enough.’
No doubt there were some warts on the bill, but there was also some misinformation out there. It wasn’t totally about student achievement; that was a factor. If you’re teaching at Stanton and your kids advance two grade levels, maybe you should be fired because they’re so smart they should have advanced three. If you’re teaching special ed kids and you move them half a grade, maybe you should get your salary doubled. Some of that needs to be subjective and I’d be willing to let principals make some of those determinations.
Ninety-eight or 99 percent of the teachers are getting satisfactory evaluations. That’s a little hard to rationalize with the problems in the school system, even though I acknowledge that a lot of the problems in the school system are beyond what any teacher could do. I just think we know good from bad and we ought to reward good and get rid of bad.
I would have voted for (SB 6) and I would have signed the bill. That being said, the dean of our College of Education said it’s a bad bill and would have deterred people from going into teaching. It didn’t even kick in for two years and it didn’t apply to existing teachers, it applied to the new teachers.
The UF presidency comes up every now and then so does your name. What do you say to that?
I get asked that with frequency. I am not really sure I am the right fit for UF and I am not sure UF is the right fit for me. Your alma mater has some attraction, but I enjoy where I am and I enjoy living in Jacksonville.
Do you think you’ll ever go back to being a lawyer?
Every now and then I get where I miss the courtroom. It’s been about 18 to 19 years. A lot of my friends are judges and I hear their stories. I could see one (day) when I hang a shingle.