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A Picture of Visionary Leadership Through the Lens of the Presidency

Originally published in the Spring 2017 issue of WAVE Magazine.
By Tim Cost ’81

We should all aspire to inspire the way Fran does, to live her legacy.

Dr. Kinne was the one person, other than my family, I talked with during the fall of 2012. The Board was considering its list of potential Presidential candidates, and I was immersed in my family, business and community life in New York and Philadelphia. When I was in Jacksonville, I would go see her. Those weren’t fuzzy, sentimental feel-good conversations. It was, “Fran, tell me, what exactly is going on these days at our University.”

She was clear, full of insight. She grabbed me by the arm more than once and said: “Oh, you have to do this. You can help.” That was important encouragement as I weighed a possible transition from PepsiCo to Jacksonville University, from corporate to higher education.

These days, I talk to her most every week. We talk about hard judgment calls we’ve both made, or need to make. It has been a joy and an education.

I have seen plenty in 32 years of business, and she has witnessed much over her decades in higher education. We are both intrigued and energized by the human spirit and share stories with each other constantly.

I find it comforting and comfortable to have both support and perspective from Fran. She is so sharp and engaged. I now sit in her former office, look out the same window, carry on much of what she began, and face some similar challenges. It’s been my honor to come back to the University and a great assurance knowing that she believes in what is happening here.

When I was a young student-athlete here, we didn’t use language like “servant leader,” but that’s what Fran was and how she continues to operate as Chancellor Emerita. Her natural style had more impact on many of us than we realized. This became more apparent to me later, at 21 years old. I wasn’t immediately handed a big leadership role, not when I first entered a world-class company, Kodak, and had to earn my way. But when I did have the chance to influence others, I had already filed away in my mind a picture of visionary leadership. Of mentorship. Of being a part of the solution, not the problem. And that picture looked much like Fran.

When I introduce her to today’s 18-year-olds, it’s not as some legendary elder from JU’s past, but as our own living, breathing embodiment of school culture and spirit. Yes, she’s born of another era, but to her credit, she has made herself an integral part of this era, too. In fact, it’s a monumental experience for students meeting her the first time. I’ve seen it over and over. She talks to them about moving purposefully in the direction of the life they want to lead, and they listen. Her words carry weight and wisdom.

Despite our differences in personality, gender, age, upbringing and roots, she and I believe deeply in culture. More precisely, in JU’s culture. A culture of excellence, collaboration, integrity, service, respect. The bottom line is: culture devours strategy, and culture always matters. Fran is what I call a great “leveler” who treats everyone the same and approaches everyone with deep respect. It’s contagious. More importantly, it has become part of our enduring culture.

I was 19 when she became President—a student athlete and probably too young to identify that underlying electrical current that made this University so inspiring. You could sense it, as often happens when an organization is truly coming into its own. I knew something exciting was underway. There was never a dull moment with Fran in charge. Her tenure from 1979 to 1989, I believe, set this University on the path for becoming the premier institution it is today.

I remember playing ballgames and having her there, and I recall going to receptions on campus where she was speaking. She would walk in and go directly to those serving.  Before talking to those “most important people” in the room, she expressed her gratitude to those working behind the scenes. In my career, I do the same. I am always proud when people find some small or worthwhile connection between her approach and mine.

Of course, optimism is an undeniable component in how Fran lives, and it is a trait I’m proud to say that we have in common. Optimism, for me, came from my parents. They drilled it into us—persistence, optimism, respect, teamwork. When Fran began to really flex her leadership muscle, this campus began to feel more and more like home to me. Probably because it was all about that same persistence, optimism, respect and teamwork. And she was a tireless advocate with a soft touch and plenty of class, a powerful combination.

When you consider that she played the piano at age three, was the first American woman to get a PhD from the University of Frankfurt, worked for the legendary Gen. MacArthur, and befriended everybody from Duke Ellington to Arthur Fiedler to Bob Hope to Winston S. Churchill, grandson and namesake to the great prime minister, it is no surprise that she held so many “firsts” over the years—first female Dean, university President, Rotarian, and onward.

In recent years, we seem to overuse words like “authentic” or “visionary” or “leaning-in,” but Fran was an original visionary. She was leaning in long before others conceived of the notion and she embodied authenticity when the term still held distinct meaning. But if you ask her whether she ever considered herself a visionary, she’d probably say no. Still, it’s what she was and still is. Her life is a prime example of service.

Today, I believe too many people are trying to earn credit, manage an image or engineer legacies. Not Fran. She doesn’t think that way. She doesn’t position herself. She doesn’t need to.

Among her many admirable qualities is the gift of creativity and turning any ordinary effort into an opportunity for innovation. In trying to describe her methods, I am drawn to artistic terms like shaping, sculpting, culling, compelling, warming, adjusting. I think sometimes she sees the world as a symphony. For a tough, steely and resilient woman, she also bears a lightness and gentleness in the way she interacts with others. You don’t shake off a good idea from Fran Kinne. Not that you’d want to anyway.

Dr. Kinne awarding Tim Cost his Bachelor’s degree in 1981.

This year, the graduation of the Class of 2017 marked the first group of freshmen who arrived at JU in 2013 when I did. It was a powerful moment for me personally. I thought of Fran during the April commencement ceremony. I thought of the way her spirit imbues these grounds, and I believe that a part of her has, indeed, seeped into the very fabric of the University. It is a remarkable thing.

Looking to the future of JU, I am committed to excellence, partnership, service, humility, respect and teamwork. Every decision we make as a University is ultimately a culture decision—as it was with Fran. Our culture is growing into a community more tightly knit, more inclusive and more accepting. We are creating true learners—in lifelong pursuit of learning—who will become tomorrow’s global citizens. And we are not a place where a student simply goes to check off a box on a to-do list and get a job, any job. Our students are inspired to push themselves, build careers and spark lasting passions.

Since 1977, I have been on and off this campus with regularity and have never seen a time more promising than right now. It’s not a cliché. The future is truly in our hands. In our small corner of the world in higher education, we’re doing something pretty damn important—helping young people get where they want to be.

Here’s what I say when I gather round the table with University leadership: “Tell me again, if I’m a student, why I care about that… why is that good for me?” I believe that this is how we will move forward, grow and progress.

Fran serves as a remarkable inspiration to us all of the transformative power of passion, optimism and service. We are all, students, faculty and Presidents alike, called to meet the promise of the high bar she has set for us. I look forward to facing the challenges and opportunities in helping JU realize its undoubtedly promising future.