Q&A with Interim President Stacy Volnick

Volnick replaced outgoing President John Kelly on Jan. 1.

Stacy Volnick, FAUs interim president.

Courtesy of FAU.

Stacy Volnick, FAU’s interim president.

Richard Pereira, Staff Writer

As 2023 is underway, Interim President Stacy Volnick is representing Florida Atlantic University starting Jan. 1, after John Kelly officially stepped down and became university president emeritus.

The University Press sat down with Volnick to talk about her chance to lead FAU.

The interview has been edited for accuracy and clarity.

University Press: What are your thoughts on becoming interim president of Florida Atlantic University?

Stacy Volnick: I think it’s an exciting time. I’ve been at the university since 1991. As a matter of fact, I was at the University Press in the late 1980s when I was a student, but then it was called the “Free Press.” I’ve sort of grown up here. It’s sort of like that pinnacle to your career. Interestingly enough, I just defended my dissertation and no one would have known that my topic, when I started, was on [female] university presidents. That was the focus of my research. It’s sort of an ironic twist in my career, if you will, marrying my academic pursuits that I’ve recently had with my professional role as I go into the interim status.

UP: What made you interested in the position of interim president?

SV: I was approached by the [Board of Trustees (BOT)]. I’ve worked with our [BOT] for many years. My office is in the president’s suite. I’ve worked closely with President Kelly and prior presidents. I think from an administrative perspective, it gives me that next view of the operations of a university, and [I’m] certainly willing to step into that role with the years of experience I’ve had at this university while they search for the next president, and hopefully to help that person transition.

UP: How does your experience of 25+ years in higher education qualify you for the position?

SV: I’ve been in administrative roles in higher ed from the beginning. I really started my career in business services. I had that entrepreneurial focus, that business focus and worked in financial affairs for 23 years. I’ve got that perspective on the budgetary and financial operations of a university. I’ve served as interim inspector general so I understand the nature of regulatory compliance, etc. That’s important in particular in a public university. I’ve served as interim vice president of advancement over the years so I have that fundraising. The roles that I’ve served permanently, plus those that I’ve served as interim over the years, gives me a very well-rounded view and experience of how a university operates for a short time. Public affairs reported to me [as well] so over the years, I’ve had the opportunity to really get to work within the different areas and get to know the people that are here and what they do. It gives a perspective and an appreciation for all of the components that really make up the runnings of a university.

UP: What are your plans heading into 2023 as interim president?

SV: Some are obviously to support the [BOT] as we conduct a presidential search, to support the university and the [BOT] in a number of the priorities: FAU Health, FAU 100, which is really around students’ success, [and] the College of Dentistry. […] I know that might sound a little hokey, but I think it’s important to start rebuilding what a campus or organizational culture is like, and [whether] that’s through student events, faculty, and staff, or bringing people together to rebuild the culture that I think in most organizations, have struggled with in a post-COVID world. I think that’s really important [for] morale [and] culture. People have to be really excited about coming in every day and knowing that whatever your role is at the university, you’re here to make a difference in a student’s life.

UP: How will you work with university officials to get these plans done?

SV: From an operational response to COVID-19, it gave me the opportunity to work with our faculty in particular, and in many of the other areas at the university. I think that they know me and they’re excited about the opportunity of bringing people back together. I think that the whole world is struggling in this post-COVID world in particular with staffing challenges [and] workforce changes. We have to learn to adapt to those and find a way to develop a campus culture that makes people excited about being here.

UP: How will you strengthen FAU’s connection with the student body, considering it’s one of the most diverse in the state of Florida?

SV: That’s something I think is really important to me and beyond just the numbers. We can say we’re the most diverse and that means we have “X” percentage of this and we’re Hispanic-serving, but it’s really about culture. It’s about people learning from each other and having the opportunity to work and learn with people from all over the world and all over this country. I think that’s something that really needs to be capitalized on or promoted. I think that’s a real opportunity that not everybody has, depending upon the organization that they work or learn in.

UP: What are your best strengths that will allow you to succeed as interim president?

SV: I’m an operations person so a crisis, a challenge, COVID-19, police matters, etc., I approach those things in a very methodical way. And those aren’t just the bad things that happen at a university. I think when you’re looking at projects, initiatives, [and] special events, you have to look at things methodically. Have a plan, work towards that plan, [and] bring in others knowing that there’s no one person that can do everything. I always say to people I work with that we’re a team. It doesn’t matter where you are in that pecking order. I think that’s really important to pull in the people that have the strengths in their area of expertise to build a team that we need to get us through this next period of time, which includes a period of substantial change. There are a lot of unknowns when you’re going through a presidential search. Who is that person going to be? What is going to be their special initiatives? What’s the new strategic plan going to look like? I think it’s really important to quell those fears, as we work through that inevitable change.

UP: What challenges do you think you’ll face as Interim President?

SV: I think higher ed is facing challenges generally. I mentioned the workforce issues, and that’s something that really is going to take some real focus on. What it is going to take to strengthen and continue to build a workforce that’s needed to support our students? What do students want as we move forward in providing a learning environment? There’s this debate over online versus in-person [classes], so how do you provide what students want but still give them a collegiate experience? Which I think is important. I think we’re all facing these challenges, and I think it’s really how to live, learn, and work in a post-COVID-19 world.

UP: Will you be involved in the search for the next FAU President?

SV: Yes, I’m the liaison to our [BOT]. I work very closely with them in my current role as the chief operating officer so I expect that to continue.

UP: As FAU finds a permanent replacement, what do you want the university to be in the long term?

SV: I think we should look at what our strengths are. I think diversity is important. Many of our students come from the local community. What are the workforce needs of the state that we all live in and how can we, as a university, focus our resources and our efforts so that we are not only educating students but preparing you all so that when you leave here, you have a career path that fits with what the needs are of the state of Florida and beyond. […] It’s important for me to listen to what students want. I work closely with the student body president, who’s a trustee, but I want to expand that. I don’t pretend to know what an 18-to-24-year-old wants, so I need to hear from an 18-to-24-year-old group of people about what [they’re] looking for in the university. I think that’s really important, to do more listening than talking about what I want to do.

UP: Speaking of having a bigger connection with the student body, when a lot of students come up to you and say, “hey, we think there’s an issue that has to be resolved very soon,” how are you going to do that?

SV: That’s something I’ve done since I’ve been here. Whether it was 20 years ago with business services, having food service advisory groups on what kind of brands students wanted on campus, to even now in my role and working in the president’s office meeting with students, parents, etc., when there’s an issue. That’s not anything that’s new to me. It’s what I do now. It’s about listening to what the issue is and helping students find solutions.

UP: Anything else?

SV: I think as a triple alum, a former member of the Free Press, I think it’s an exciting time for me but I hope it’s an opportunity where I can really hear from the students. I feel like there is a need to bring people back together, whether that’s in person […] to really hear what students are looking for in the university. That’s what I look forward to, creating priorities that are based on what students want.

Editor’s note: This story is in the UP’s latest issue that can be found physically on the  distribution boxes around campus or digitally through our Issuu page.

Richard Pereira is a staff writer for the University Press. For information regarding this or other stories, email [email protected] or tweet him @Rich26Pereira.