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End of an era: Longest-serving Panther retires 51 years later

End of an era: Longest-serving Panther retires 51 years later

Professor emeritus-turned-administrator Stephen Fain says farewell

January 4, 2023 at 10:00am

One of FIU’s original employees is calling it quits. Stephen Fain, 83 next month, has worked at FIU longer than anyone else. He has been on campus since before the university opened in 1972 through well past its 50th anniversary last September.  

Hired under Founding President Charles E. Perry as a professor of education, Fain early on held the job of senior academic planner. In addition to helping establish the university-wide general curriculum, set policies and launch the Faculty Senate, he in 1976 led FIU’s first self-study, an evaluation of every aspect of the university. The resulting document served as a review of how student and community needs were being met and a guide to planning for the future, including for the then-new North Miami Campus (today BBC). He would go on to lead the development of doctoral programs and open the door to Jewish studies at FIU by serving as founder and director of an academic institute devoted to the subject. 

Most recently, Fain has made a mark as the driving force behind Ignite. Since its creation in 2011, the effort has become the most successful faculty and staff fundraising campaign at any public university in the United States and brought in more than $32 million in support of designated programs and scholarships near and dear to the hearts of employees. 

The native New Yorker earned a doctorate in education from Teacher’s College, Columbia University. During his time at FIU, he served as an associate dean, a department chair and the chair of the Faculty Senate and earned several university awards. He has been married for 58 years to Judi and has two grown children. In retirement, he will prioritize family and friends and has plans to learn to fly a plane.

Here follow a few random memories from his more than five decades on the job. 

On coming down from New York to South Florida and FIU – a university being built upon an old executive airport – for an interview in 1971:  

I remember campus was dusty and that three-quarters of the PC building was up. Everywhere I looked, there were all kinds of runways, residues of airplanes, hangars. [Dean of the School of Education] G. Wesley Sowards takes me to a building made of ten or 12 shipping containers piled one on top of the other, two or three stories high. They called it the ‘modular building.’ Then he introduces me to this guy, [25-year-old then-Assistant Dean of Education] Paul Gallagher, and he tells him to show me around. And we start walking. I am wearing a Harris Tweed sport coat and pouring sweat. I’m soaked. 

Gallagher takes me to a spot where there was a buildup of dirt, almost like a ramp, once used to stop airplanes as they land from continuing out of control into the Everglades. We go up to the top of that, and he looks all around and says to me, ‘A great university will emerge on this site.’  

And I say to myself, ‘This is amazing,’ and I call my wife, and I tell her I want to take this job. ‘Nobody in my field ever gets to do this kind of thing [start a university] from scratch. You only get a chance to try and fix it, and here we are going to try to make it from scratch. I want to try to do it.’ And my wife is a good lady, and she said, ‘Well it’s Miami, why not.’ 

So I agreed to the job, and they offered me $13,000, and I said, ‘That’s ridiculous.’ I was already earning $14,000 teaching at Brooklyn College. Meanwhile, another university with which I had interviewed was offering me $16,000. FIU wouldn’t go as high as that but did agree to pay me $14,000. 

On those early days of “making it from scratch:” 

If you break it down, there were only 50 people, academics, who were working with Perry to build a university. The others were building infrastructure, the nuts and bolts guys who dealt with building issues and getting permits. 

Most of the young people who came, like me, were attracted to the opportunity. And the opportunity was not just a new university. It was an opportunity for a new university intent on serving an underserved population. That was the thing that was so remarkable. The purpose was not just to build a university but to build a university for people who needed it. And that’s still in our DNA. We made a lot of decisions about this university that included diversity. 

On FIU's record-setting opening day, September 19, 1972, which welcomed 5,667 students: 

The greatest fear was that we would open like FAU [with a class of fewer than 870 students, in 1964]. So we started recruiting. A bunch of us went to Dadeland Mall, to a rodeo in Homestead, to shopping centers. I would go out with my wife and hand out pamphlets, and we’d have conversations with people, to tell them FIU is coming to town. We worked the community. Overtown, Hialeah, Coral Gables, Kendall – we were everywhere. We told people we would offer classes in the evening and on weekends to meet their schedules. And we offered credit for life experience. 

When we opened, we had 2,000 more students than we were supposed to have. We were robust from the start. That was actually the beginning of our problem. Because now everybody – UM, FAU, Miami-Dade College [known then as Dade Community College] feared us because they knew that FIU was on the march. 

On what he is most proud of: 

I don’t feel like it’s all about me, but I had a role, and I’m proud of that role. I tried to find out the direction the ship was going in and asked how I could help get it there. In my time, I’ve published a few things, I’ve held national office in my professional associations and been recognized by others in my discipline. But my big thing is, I really helped move the university. I helped it get where it needed to go.  

On FIU's future: 

I think FIU has the potential to be one of the greatest 21st-century universities. We’re on a launchpad. I’m not leaving at the end. I’m leaving at the end of the beginning.