The University of Central Florida has sorted its presidents for the near future, with Interim President Thad Seymour Jr. staying on probably through mid-2020, former President Dale Whittaker moving on but with some pay, and former President John Hitt being cut loose without any more pay.
The UCF Board of Trustees voted Thursday to name Seymour its “long-term” interim president, rather than acting or emergency-interim, putting him in place until a full national search is conducted. And that search likely won’t start until the fall or conclude until next year. So Seymour will hold that job until the summer of 2020, at a bas pay of $506,000.
Cutting ties with Seymour’s predecessor, Whittaker, struck the board as more difficult.
Whittaker resigned in February due to the roiling UCF misspending scandal. But his contract, as with most university presidents’ contracts, would have allowed him to stay on as a tenured professor as long as he liked. UCF’s board apparently did not want that option, and voted Thursday to pay him a $600,000 buyout of that contract so that he could leave UCF completely without any legal fights.
Whittaker’s predecessor Hitt, who retired last June after leading the institution for 26 years, got no such deal. Hitt, whom the board concluded played “a key role” in the misspending decisions, was under a “performance unit plan” contract that could have paid him as much as $339,000 over the next couple of years. The UCF board voted to terminate it, cancelling that pay. Earlier, the board had cancelled one payment from that contract.
The end result of the three deals leaves Seymour, on the books as UCF’s vice president for partnerships and chief innovation officer, in place to lead UCF until the board’s target date of June or July 2020 for the hiring of a new permanent president. If it’s not him, he’ll then get to go back to his vice president’s post.
Of the trio of decisions, only the Whittaker deal seemed to bring concerns for the board, which had received criticism for proposing what some had called “a golden parachute.” UCF General Counsel Scott Cole told the board that without a deal Whittaker would be entitled to stay as a tenured professor or to demand a buyout of his projected income were he to leave immediately. Board Chair Robert Garvy projected that could be worth $3.2 million over the course of 10 years, should Whittaker be projected to stay until age 67. So Garvy characterized the $600,000 lump payment as “clearly advantageous to UCF.”
He also touted the pledge that the $600,000 would be paid through private donations, not through tax money.
Whittaker already has approved the settlement agreement. Cole advised that he did not think UCF could fire Whittaker with cause, its only other way out.
Garvy and Cole expressed concerns about how it might look to potential applicants interested in becoming UCF’s next president if the university was involved in lengthy litigation with its previous president.
“Should our board not approve this agreement with Dr. Whittaker, it would be nearly impossible to attract a world-class leader as our next president,” Garvy argued. “We could be engaged in a legal battle with our former president for a year or more, spending time and resources to fight this matter, and while also disrupting our efforts to advance the university with new leadership.”
Whittaker and Hitt had led the university as the administrators moved money around, illegally to reprogram up to $85 million in operating money for construction projects, including the $38 million new Trevor Colbourn Hall building.
A university-commissioned outside investigation found Hitt and former Chief Financial Officer Bill Merck largely responsible, not Whittaker, though Whittaker was provost during much of that time and succeeded Hitt in July. However an investigation by the Florida House Public integrity and Ethics Committee found some fault with Whittaker, while also putting the brunt of the responsibility on Hitt and Merck. Whittaker resigned in the midst of that House investigation, but before its report was released.
Seymour, who was in business with Tavistock Development Co. and other companies before joining the university in 2015, was asked to fix things, especially with House leaders and others in Tallahassee. His appointment still must be approved by the Florida Board of Governors, which meets March 28.
“I’m truly humbled by this trust you’ve placed in me,” Seymour said.
“What keeps it for me from being overwhelming is the incredible positive energy from the people all around this institution,” he added. “Everyone I’ve talked to is committed to making this a better place.”