TALLAHASSEE — The sign leading into provost Larry Abele's office at Florida State University is unequivocal: It's the students, stupid.
Inside, his bookshelves sag under the weight of three-ring binders and reports that track such things as enrollment and graduation trends, faculty departures and salary data.
This is Larry Abele the administrator: outspoken, unapologetic, driven by numbers. Willing to fire deans or deny tenure to a popular instructor.
Larry Abele, father and husband, is more nuanced. The first-generation college graduate has an altruistic bent that influences some of his most recent successes — including FSU's nationally lauded support program serving low-income minorities.
The result: As Abele approaches his 15th year as provost, FSU is garnering attention and improving its chances of membership in the prestigious invitation-only Association of American Universities.
"Larry sees it all," says FSU president T.K. Wetherell. "If you look at how we've grown over the past 25 years, he's an integral part of that. He's kind of like Florida State's secret weapon."
FSU enjoys the highest black student graduation rate in the country, thanks to the academic program for first-generation college students that Abele has worked to expand and improve. A $90-million rainy-day fund, built up quietly under the leadership of Abele and other top administrators, is enabling FSU to push forward with a plan for hiring superstar professors — even as other state colleges freeze or eliminate teaching positions.
Yet Abele, 62, is not universally liked, and he accepts that.
In a 2008 poll of 601 faculty members, 8 percent rated his performance outstanding, and 26 percent rated it good. Thirty-eight percent said fair or poor.
"Most people may not like me or agree with me," Abele says. "But I think they would say I am open about the decisions I make, and that I am fair."
Moving up ladder
FSU's provost could have been an auto mechanic or a commercial fisherman.
Abandoned by his father and raised with five siblings in Miami by his Catholic mother, Abele often skipped school to go fishing.
His first job after graduation was fixing cars. He tried becoming a commercial fisherman and then struggled through Miami-Dade Community College, dropping the first semester after just a few weeks.
Not until a class discussion of The Grapes of Wrath the following semester did Abele embark on the studious path that brought him to FSU's highest academic post.
After getting his bachelor's and master's from FSU, and his doctorate from the University of Miami, he and his wife, Linda, returned to Tallahassee in 1973 so he could take a job as an assistant professor in the biology department.
He got noticed while serving on a committee evaluating the department's professors. Rather than let politics and personalities sway him, as is often the case in academia, he spent hours researching their work. He created a huge handwritten spreadsheet analyzing their productivity.
Abele moved up the ladder, from department chairman to liberal arts college dean to provost, a post he has held since 1994.
Wetherell says Abele changed the way the provost's office is run by relying more than any predecessor on hard numbers and the smallest details.
"Larry is a scientist, so his thought process follows a logical progression, and he doesn't get emotionally involved when a dean says 'I need more money.' " Wetherell explains. "He pulls out a bar graph, and says, 'Here's your enrollment, here's your faculty. Here's your current budget, here's where you're projected to grow, so, yes, you need this money or, no, you don't.' "
The approach isn't always popular. Several years ago, Abele started fining professors who turned in students' grades late.
"That was sort of jaw-dropping for a lot of people," says Robert Bradley, vice president for planning and programs.
Abele does not advertise it, but one of his most significant roles is being the longtime surrogate father to two African-American sisters who overcame difficult backgrounds to become successful adults. They were grade school students of his wife, and for years the Abeles have nurtured them as their own.
So friends and loved ones weren't surprised when Abele, as provost, vowed to improve and expand the Center for Academic Retention and Enhancement, FSU's academic program for low-income, first-generation college students.
Most of the center's students are minorities, and thanks to millions invested in the program, today nearly 71 percent of black students graduate from FSU within six years.
When state budget woes recently forced FSU to cut back its general spending, Abele took a bigger hit on his academic side so that custodians could keep their jobs and their health benefits.
"He realized the institution would be stronger because of it," says Wetherell.
Now Abele is pushing ahead with plans for faculty raises and a food and fuel subsidy for FSU's lowest-earning workers because, he says, "it's just the right thing to do."
And of course, the numbers tell him so.
On his desk is a color line graph that tracks Florida's economy from the 1970s oil crisis to present, and the corresponding departures of dozens of FSU employees. As the economy went south, professors and others went north and beyond, in search of opportunities elsewhere, he says.
"The data keeps you from BS-ing yourself with 'Oh, our students are doing great.' " Abele says. "It's so easy to congratulate yourself, but you have to look at the numbers."