Concerns arise over search for new Florida State president
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) — By most accounts, the leading contender for the top job at one of Florida’s largest public colleges is a well-heeled candidate who also happens to be a former Florida House Speaker and the state’s current education chief.
The candidacy the state education commissioner, Richard Corcoran, for president of Florida State University, has raised alarm over conflicts of interest, including concerns that could threaten the accreditation of the university.
But the search process is also underscoring the dearth of diversity and inclusion in the upper reaches of academia, particularly within Florida’s 12-campus state university system — where all but two campuses are led by white men.
Prior to being reestablished as Florida State University, the sprawling university in Florida’s capital of Tallahassee was known as Florida State College for Women. It has never had a woman or person of color as its president.
And its unlikely the next president will be either, said Maxine Montgomery, an FSU English professor who leads the university’s task force on antiracism, equality and inclusion.
“The search process tends to favor candidates who are politically connected, rather than those candidates who have a strong background in academia,” Montgomery said.
Whether Corcoran survives the search process grew uncertain earlier this week because of conflicts-of interest concerns raised Thursday by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges, the accrediting body for higher education institutions in the South.
In a letter to the chair of the board of governors that oversees the state university system, the president of the accrediting body said Florida State could find itself out of compliance with its standards if Corcoran does not resign as schools commissioner while a candidate for the university post. As commissioner, Corcoran oversees the state’s public schools and universities and is a member of the university’s board of governors, the same body that will hire FSU’s new president.
“While it is often especially difficult for members of a governing board who are appointed by the Governor or legislative body to remain independent in their work, it is imperative that they do, or they place the accreditation of the institution(s) they govern in jeopardy,” Belle S. Wheelan, the president of the SACSCOC, wrote in her letter.
“This not only brings bad press to the institution(s) and the possible loss in enrollment and donations, but it endangers the institutions’ access to federal financial aid.”
In response, the chair of the university system’s board of governors, Sydney Kitson, said in a letter that Corcoran would recuse himself from a vote.
“As a voting member, if he is advanced to the Board 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 his reply.
A spokesperson for Florida State said Corcoran remained on the slate of applicants scheduled for a second day of interviews by a search committee on Saturday.
The university said 35 people applied for the job, which was winnowed to nine finalists. It’s uncertain how many people of color applied for the post, but among the nine candidates Florida State is publicly interviewing, only one is a woman and only one is a person of color.
That mirrors the current demographics among those who hold the top posts at Florida’s 12 state university campuses, some of which are among the country’s largest public colleges campuses. All but two of those campuses appear to led by white men.
“It’s kind of been Martha and the boys for a while,” said the president of the University of West Florida, Martha D. Saunders. The campus in Florida’s Panhandle has about 9,500 enrollees and is among the university’s smaller campuses.
“I do very much admire and appreciate my male colleagues, but I would be happy to see more diversity on the leadership ranks anywhere. Diversity, I think, enriches us,” said Saunders, who has been president of her campus for the past five years.
She could soon be joined by another woman, whose selection to replace the retiring president of the New College of Florida is up for confirmation next month.
The latest study by the American Council on Education showed gains, but white men continued to dominate the ranks of top leadership.
In 1986, 91.9% of college presidents were white. By 2016, the latest data available, the percentage of non-white college presidents doubled, comprising 16.8%. The latest data also showed that women accounted for about 30% of the country’s college and university presidents.
“It’s troubling that we’ve only ever had white men be president of our university, and especially troubling that we’ve only ever had men be president of our university, given that we started off as a college for women,” said Michael Buchler, an FSU professor of music and a vice president of the faculty union.