John Delaney is ready for a change. The former mayor of Jacksonville, more recently president of the University of North Florida, is in a cheery mood when he sits down amid the happy clutter of his office a few weeks before he joins the private sector. Books, family photos, and sports memorabilia adorn the walls of the bright corner space where he spent the last decade-and-a-half shattering presumptions and exceeding expectations.
Under Delaney, UNF consistently rose in rankings, diversity, size, quality and perception. When he joined the university in 2003, the average incoming freshman GPA was 3.6; last fall it was 4.27. The school has seen similar gains in graduation rates, now 13 points higher than the national median; the prestige of athletic and academic programs; and across-the-board upgrades to the campus itself facilitated by $250 million in funds raised and $187 million of state construction grants, which helped build/renovate 10 buildings that received the LEED certification for green construction.
And he did it all with a smile.
Asked to what he credits his success, Delaney chuckles. "Luck and timing." Continuing, he gives a nod to his political and business connections, but more so to his willingness to concede point when he's the odd man out. "I've learned that when the room disagrees with me, I'm usually wrong," he says.
When the subject comes up, it has to be asked whether he's considering another turn in the political whirligig. For the time being, he's not-but he's not ruling it out. "I kinda like the idea of watching it from the sidelines," he says. He has grandkids nearby and Jacksonville is home, so it may be that the sun set on Delaney's political career when his second term as mayor ended.
Still, with Trump (whose way of handling himself Delaney says he is "kind of appalled by") running the country, voters may see politicians of Delaney's ilk in a favorable light. "Trump, Rick Scott, Mayor [Lenny] Curry, [...] they've got the strong man style of governing and kind of power things through," he says.
Back on the subject of UNF, Delaney talks about the benefits and drawbacks of online classes, which can afford shy students an opportunity to learn in a less stressful environment, but also lack some of the richness of the classroom. "Some introverted students benefit from online, they'll type away online, but they'll never raise their hand," he says. On the other hand, there's the risk of cheating, or simply buying As.
Online versus in-classroom learning isn't the only challenging development that the school has grappled with during Delaney's tenure. Last year, UNF faced two almost-scandals; one when a now-former student posted an allegedly threatening picture of himself with an assault rifle on a message board; and when a video surfaced of students miming reportedly racist behavior.
UNF under Delaney's leadership successfully navigated each by carefully balancing the issues. Talking about the idea of acceptable and unacceptable speech, he turns reflective, pointing out wonderingly that a majority of Millennials are willing to limit the expression of ideas they disagree with, which he finds alarming, even as he asks if perhaps there is a bridge too far for the First Amendment, a catch-all, Nazi rule, perhaps. It seems that as much as Delaney has changed UNF, 15 years in academia may have changed him.
Though he feels those natural twinges of sadness as he prepares to leave to work with Rogers Towers and The Fiorentino Group, Delaney is ready for the next challenge. "It's time for somebody new at UNF," he says without a trace of irony. "I'm kinda running out of good ideas."
Read our interview with incoming UNF President David Szymanski here.