“Aloha” to a leader with a heart

Click on the image to view a slideshow of the event

On a sweltering late-April afternoon, a crowd of friends, family, colleagues and UF leaders packed the patio and spilled over onto the lawn at University House to celebrate the career of Paula Varnes Fussell, UF’s vice president for Human Resource Services. The retirement ceremony was filled with heartfelt stories and tearful expressions of gratitude for Fussell’s courageous leadership, her persistent dedication to serving as a champion for a good cause, and her invaluable mentorship to those who have worked with her.

Although she claimed she originally thought she would “rather be shot out of a cannon” than be the object of such a display, Fussell admitted she was touched by the ceremony—and was actually having a pretty good time.  And in her characteristic manner, she turned the event into an opportunity to speak out on behalf of others in need, pulling attention to the cause that has captured her heart in recent years: the Southwest Advocacy Group’s CHILD Center, a community-based high quality early learning center for low-income children.

It was clear that, in spite of her retirement from UF, Fussell shows no signs of slowing down in the years to come. Rather than bid the crowd farewell, she said she would simply say “aloha,” which means both hello and goodbye.

We sat down with Fussell in her final days as VP of HRS to hear more about her reflections on her time at UF as well as her plans for the future.
Tell us about the journey that led you to UF.

I grew up in Gainesville, so Gainesville is my home. In high school I would go to the Plaza of the Americas for the Halloween Ball.  So as a child growing up in Gainesville, the University of Florida was it. I never thought about going anywhere else to school.  I started at Santa Fe, which was Santa Fe Community College then and only had 2,500 students.  But I transferred to UF and got a business degree.

I was fortunate enough to get a job at Shands Hospital, and I worked there in the accounting area for four years.  I was able to get a job in the Controller’s Office at UF in 1984.  When I started at UF, we were implementing an HR system, ironically enough.  I was in budgeting—and most of your budget is people—so we were implementing a new system called IA.  We implemented the system, and I was able to stay in budgeting, then I moved up into the vice president’s office in a new budgeting position and kind of stayed in accounting and budgeting on the administrative side.  For a while I was also in the Provost’s office, working on the academic side.  There I also had the chance to work with a lot of deans and faculty.

Then you were at USF for a little while.

Yes, I was hired as the budget director, working for Betty Castor, who was president at the time. I spent six years in Tampa before coming back to UF.  I applied and was brought back as assistant vice president for Administrative Affairs, which is now Business Affairs.

During that time, I was over UF HR during the implementation of PeopleSoft from 2002-2004. We had implemented PeopleSoft at USF, and I brought with me recent implementation experience of an HR system.

How did the transition from accounting to HR come about?

I probably spent 80 percent of my time in HR, even though it was one of several areas that reported to me.  And I realized I liked people a lot more than numbers.  I am good at math, thanks to my father, who made sure I was good at math. And I’ve always enjoyed numbers, but I really enjoy people more.  And I felt like I could make a difference, perhaps, working with HR more closely.

Reflecting on your career at UF, what would you consider some of the highlights?

We had so many implementations of so many systems during my career here—new processes both at the state level and at UF—including the devolution of the university in 2003, which was a big change from an HR perspective.  I really do care about people and I care about how they handle change, so I think I was able to help during the transition.  It was a positive change, but it can be a lot of stress for the people you work with who are trying to make it successful.  And I feel like I helped during that time.

When the universities devolved from the state, one of the biggest impacts was that they were allowed to have their own systems. So the state no longer cut the paychecks, and the universities were given the authority for all of their HR policies, procedures, pay plans and compensation—and that was huge in the HR world.  We implemented PeopleSoft HRMS and Financials in 2004 with what we called the “big bang” approach, and I think that was really instrumental in moving the university forward to preeminence.

Shortly after the systems implementation, we implemented GatorGradCare for our graduate students, and I think that was really important.  When we started paying for and providing health care for our graduate assistants on appointment, we could bring in the best and the brightest.  We also implemented domestic partner benefits.  We were the first public institution in the state of Florida to do that, and it was very controversial at the time.  But we were able to do it because of our ability to have our own personnel practices.  To me, that was a huge deal for the people who could not have the opportunity of health care for their partners.  And it’s really been a positive recruitment tool for our faculty and staff.

And there were the efforts to launch GatorCare as well.

That’s one of the initiatives I spent a lot of time working on during the implementation.  I do believe it is in the university’s best interest to have control over its own benefits—especially health insurance and voluntary benefits.  We weren’t able to get that for all of our employees yet, primarily because a lot of the politics in the legislature, but I do believe going forward that is something that would help the University of Florida in terms of Gators helping Gators.

GatorCare has also given us the opportunity to expand our wellness opportunities for our employees.  As I’m leaving, I’ve had so many employees talk to me about how pleased they are with all the wellness opportunities we have offered.  One of the things I think that helps with the positive culture of the university is in keeping our employees healthy, both from a mental standpoint and a physical standpoint. There is a whole committee that has worked really hard to expand wellness opportunities for employees, and I see that just blossoming into this huge wellness tree.  So I’m very pleased with the progress we have made.

I think GatorCare in some ways allowed us to be able to expand the wellness opportunities—as well as the collaboration across UF, UF Health and Shands.  We’re also a member of the National Consortium for Building Healthy Academic Communities, and we are going to host a national summit here in 2017, which is really going to highlight the University of Florida.

When you look at HR programs at public universities across the country, how are we doing?

We aspire to be in the top five, and certainly in many ways, we are in the top ten.  Over the past 10 or 12 years, we have put many things in place that have made us a preeminent university.  The last couple of years, Forbes has said we are one of the best places to work and one of the best public institutions in the country, and I think that’s reflective of the things we’ve put in place from a climate perspective, from a culture perspective, that attracts faculty and staff to the University of Florida.

You’ve also worked hard to support Baby Gator in the last few years.

I am so proud of Baby Gator and all the folks who work there.  They do a wonderful service for the faculty, staff, and students at the university, and it is one of the top, if not the top, childcare and early learning centers in Alachua County.  The reputation is stellar.  We have a waiting list of several hundred.

President Machen was very instrumental in getting us a new building for one of our centers, and I think it’s an area where we could frankly probably do more.  It would be nice if we didn’t have a waiting list.  It would be nice if we had another center somewhere on campus where we could meet the needs of our faculty and staff.  But I’m just really proud of what they’re doing with the children; it is one of the areas of which I’m most proud.

You have a passion for children and for community service.  Can you talk about why that’s been so important to you?

I guess it’s been there all my life—a lot of it comes from my mother, I think, and the way I was raised.  I always wanted to do things that make a difference, and I love this community.  I love children and I see a lot of poverty in our community, and I somehow just wanted to make a difference.  I didn’t feel like just working and making money was enough.  I feel like we need to give back to people and bring other people up if we can.  And I think there’s a lot we can do in the community.

I think there’s a lot of synergy around what I was meant to do to help children.  I think I was meant to be involved in the community, and I am passionate about it.  If we invest in children, we can make a difference in the world.  I can’t change the whole world, but I can help have an impact locally.  And if everyone does that, then it will ripple out.

In a way, you have leveraged your retirement as an opportunity to help others by bringing attention to the SWAG initiative.  How did you become involved with that project?

When I was in the Guardian ad Litem program, I was involved with a family that had six children, and the mom was in jail.  What you do [as a volunteer for Guardian ad Litem] is you try to be a representative for the children and make sure they are being taken care of in difficult times.  I got involved and became really attached to one particular family.  When I met this family for the first time, they lived in Linton Oaks in an apartment there—the grandmother, the aunt and all the kids.  They only had one bed in the apartment to sleep in.  And I saw how people were living right down the street from where I lived, and I said, “That’s not right.  There’s something wrong here.”  I got really close to this family, and I’ve been with them for almost six years.

One of the things I found with this family I was involved with is that they couldn’t send their children to daycare because they couldn’t pay for it.  And even though VPK was free and I would take the kids to VPK, I would have to pick them up and take them home because the parents couldn’t pay for them to have childcare in the afternoon. And most of the children in the SWAG neighborhood were in this situation.

But the interesting thing was, I had been working with Dr. Pat Snyder and Dr. Maureen Conroy of the Anita Zucker Center for Excellence in Early Childhood Studies, and Dr. Pam Pallas, the director of Baby Gator, trying to identify how we might build an early learning collaborative center which could be a national model somewhere on the UF campus.   During this time, a representative from the SWAG board reached out to Dr. Pallas about starting a childcare center in the SWAG neighborhood. I had been reading about the SWAG group—the Southwest Advocacy Group—for a couple of years.  So I went by to see what they were doing, and they had built a SWAG Resource Center right there in the middle of Linton Oaks. After the visit and speaking with the SWAG board members, we said to ourselves, “You know, maybe we should have a model demonstration project where our children are—where they live.”

And then you set about finding the money to make it happen.

I have to say Bernie Machen, who was president of UF at the time, and [UF Vice President for Development and Alumni Affairs] Tom Mitchell were instrumental is moving this forward, too, because they agreed to contribute some funds on a matching basis for us to be able to create and support an early learning center.   And at the same time, great things were happening with the Center for Excellence, and the naming of the center the “Anita Zucker Center for Excellence in Early Childhood Studies.”  Ms. Zucker has been a powerful advocate for children, for early learning, and for the University of Florida as a member of our Board of Trustees.

I had also been in touch with Dr. Nancy Hardt, who had worked with Sheriff Sadie Darnell to create some data maps with information overlaid about children’s progress in elementary schools as well as data from the Alachua County Sheriff’s Department.  And all of the areas of need overlapped.   So it was very evident that the SWAG area, which included the neighborhood where my family lived, was an area of need that could benefit from services.

During this time, Dr. Hardt introduced me to Dorothy Thomas and Dorothy Benson, who are deeply involved in SWAG.  When I went to look at places near the SWAG Resource Center for us to perhaps have a model demonstration project—and I met “the Dorothies,” as I call them—it made the hair raise on my arms and tears come to my eyes because the place we were looking at—the location right behind the SWAG Resource Center—was the location of the original apartment where my family was living when I first met them six years ago.

I’ve told that story to a lot of people.  But I am not the only one who feels passionate about this issue. I think of the passion of the many, many people who are making this happen.  And what a huge difference they’ve made in the SWAG neighborhood!  Since the family resource center has been in place, there’s been a 57 percent reduction in verified child maltreatments in those neighborhoods over a four-year period.  That is huge.

It really exemplifies the notion of the Gator Good.

And it’s a great return on investment.  We’ve been able to convince the Chamber and other groups that there is a great return on the investment when we invest in children.  The children we invest in today are the people who are going to be the workers and the taxpayers of the future.  So we can either pay for them in social services later or we can invest up front so they can be successful in life and help break the cycle of poverty.

So the University of Florida is not just preeminent in Florida, its preeminence can impact the world.  What the University of Florida can do in research, in service, and in the healthcare areas—all of those things can change the world and make the world a better place.  And why not start right here in our own community? So for me, the CHILD early learning center, SWAG and all of the efforts that we are making for children in our community and to end poverty in Alachua County – it is all for the Gator Good.

It doesn’t sound like you’ll be slowing down anytime soon.  What are your plans for retirement?

Well, like most people my age, I have aging parents.  So I’m going to spend more time with them and help them through that part of life.  My husband and I want to travel.  I want to spend more time with my dogs.

But I also want to spend more time on my passion around helping children.  The Children’s Services Council was just approved by our Alachua County Commissioners.  We are going to have board members, and the council is going to advocate for where we can spend our funds to best help children and their families.  We have had some funding approved by the commissioners to help support these efforts.

We’re hoping to have a referendum in two years that would continue that investment.  For the last ten years, we invested in our lands through the Alachua Conservation Trust. Now we’d like to see us invest in our children for the next ten years.   So this is just the beginning, and it will mean a lot of work from a lot of people from around the community.

I already know my days will be full.