As Florida State University seeks a successor to retiring President John Thrasher, a committee Friday started interviewing nine finalists for the job — as questions swirled about a potential conflict of interest for one high-profile candidate and as a student campaign emerged for another.
The university’s Presidential Search Advisory Committee began a two-day process of interviewing the finalists, a mix of politically connected local candidates and academics from universities throughout the country.
A roughly hour-long public comment period before interviews began in the ornate Ruby Diamond Concert Hall included faculty members opposing state Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran’s bid for the job and a student-led group advocating for Tallahassee attorney and lobbyist Sean Pittman.
Corcoran is a former Florida House speaker, like Thrasher and the late T.K. Wetherell, who served as FSU president from 2003 to 2010.
“Corcoran suggests that because Presidents Thrasher and Wetherell were also speakers of the Florida House, he too is qualified for the job,” said Will Hanley, an FSU history professor. “This is akin to arguing that because former presidents were men, we ought to choose a man as the next president. The fact that former presidents were Speakers does not qualify other Speakers of the House for the presidency.”
On Thursday, an accrediting organization for FSU raised questions about whether Corcoran has a potential conflict of interest because he serves on the state university system’s Board of Governors. The Board of Governors ultimately will have to approve the candidate selected by FSU’s Board of Trustees to succeed Thrasher.
Belle Wheelan, president of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges, sent a letter to Board of Governors Chairman Syd Kitson. In it, Wheelan warned that the school’s accreditation could be on the line should Corcoran get the job without first stepping down from the Board of Governors.
Kitson, replying to Wheelan in a letter Friday, wrote that Corcoran serves on the board in an “ex officio capacity” as required by the state Constitution.
“As a voting member, if he is advanced to the Board (of Governors) for confirmation, under Florida law he must abstain from voting and disclose the nature of his interest before the confirmation meeting in a memorandum filed with our corporate secretary,” Kitson wrote in the letter to Wheelan.
Other faculty members speaking Friday asked the search committee to recommend someone with experience in higher education, rather than a candidate with political ties in Tallahassee.
“You have the choice of broadcasting a damaging message about FSU, by choosing finalists who are known for their connections within Florida, rather than their experience in university leadership. Or, you can rise above politics and choose the well-qualified candidates that FSU deserves. I urge you to do the latter. Universities must not be politicized,” said Nancy Rogers, a music professor.
Several students who spoke Friday tried to make the case for hiring Pittman, citing a campaign dubbed “Pittman For President.” Backers have launched a website to gather signatures expressing “strong support” for Pittman.
“Sean Pittman is a proud double alumnus of this university, and he knows what makes us unique,” FSU junior Hollyn Saliga said.
Pittman, who was student body president during his time at the university, pitched himself to the search committee as an effective lobbyist of state and federal government who would prioritize academics and athletics and a “balance” between the two if given the job. He also cited a “profile” that the committee included in an advertisement for the job.
“You spoke in your profile about academic excellence, because you recognize that we have a faculty that expects it, teaching and research, that we are on the cusp of doing amazing things, and getting close to the top 10,” Pittman said, referencing the university’s recent rise in public university rankings.
One of the candidates from another university, Robert Blouin, provost of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, also was interviewed Friday.
“We need to make sure that our young graduates are prepared for tomorrow, and we need to give them the tools to do that,” Blouin said during the interview.
Khamare Garner, a student studying music at FSU, said he wants to see someone with experience as an academic become the next president.
“In order for us to take the next big step, and build off of President Thrasher’s work, we need an individual who is an educator first, not a lobbyist and not a politician,” Garner said.
Six candidates were slated to be interviewed Friday, including Randy Hanna, dean and CEO of Florida State’s Panama City campus. Corcoran and two other candidates will be interviewed Saturday, and the search committee is expected to whittle the finalists to a smaller group.
Next week, the remaining candidates will participate in individual “open candidate forums” with students, faculty and staff. The search committee will ultimately give recommendations to the university Board of Trustees, which is expected to make a selection in early June. The selected candidate will need approval from the system’s Board of Governors.