ST. PETERSBURG — The post-Carl Kuttler era began Tuesday when the St. Petersburg College board of trustees chose William D. Law Jr. as the school's next president.
The selection of Law, the 61-year-old president of Tallahassee Community College, was touted as a safe choice in a climate of tightening financial times that could propel the school past months of negative publicity that followed Kuttler's surprise resignation last year.
"(Law) is tried and true," said trustee W. Richard Johnston. "He's geared in his career to handle an institution like this."
But for some, including members of the school's faculty, the choice hardly ushered in a fresh break from the past.
"I'm very pleased, but I think people will be very divided on this," said Earl Fratus, the faculty senate president. "I think the faculty were so excited to have the other candidate so focused on the faculty and the classroom, which we didn't have under the previous administration."
That other candidate was Thomas Keegan, president of Peninsula College in Port Angeles, Wash. Keegan and Law were the clear favorites all along. They were the top two vote getters when a list of eight semifinalists was culled in early February. They both nabbed 11 votes, nearly double the next closest candidate.
By Tuesday's trustees meeting, teachers at the college had split between Law and Keegan, Fratus said.
While Law impressed with his longtime experience, especially his knowledge of Tallahassee that could help the school get state aid, he had some possible drawbacks, Fratus said.
He worked under Kuttler from 1981 to 1989 as the college's vice president of institutional and program planning, an association that "some say is a good thing, and some say is a bad thing," Fratus said. Law also is known as a powerful leader with a temper, a management style that could remind some of Kuttler.
Still, Fratus said, Law also has a reputation for apologizing later, suggesting a conciliatory approach for which Kuttler wasn't known.
Keegan, on the other hand, was considered more of an outsider.
"He's a fresh face," said Bob Stubblefield, the former director of SPC's bookstores. "The only problem I see is that he hasn't dealt with the Legislature and Law has."
Keegan's reputation was that of being a collaborator with faculty, stressing the importance of spending money directly or indirectly on classroom instruction. Trustees Deveron Gibbons and Kenneth Burke voiced early support for Keegan, saying the college needed innovation and better relations with faculty more than experience at this point.
But trustees Johnston, Evelyn Bilirakis and Terrence Brett preferred Law's experience. Later, Gibbons and Burke voted with them to show consensus for Law.
"I think sometimes the timing is good to have a safe candidate," Brett said. "The economic climate doesn't want me to be as innovative."
Two other finalists, Paula Marie Gastenveld, an administrator from the Kentucky Community and Technical College System, and B. Kaye Walter, an administrator from Orlando's Valencia Community College, were eliminated earlier in Tuesday's meeting.
Kuttler, who began as president in 1978, did not attend the meeting. During his leadership, the school grew to nine learning sites throughout Pinellas County with more than 65,000 students enrolled annually.
As school officials embarked on a search, Kuttler stirred controversy by requesting a severance package of $684,000 that included a $185,788 reimbursement for an unused sabbatical. The board of trustees rejected that request, but the subsequent discussion lasted months, distracting from the search. Trustees ultimately opted to pay Kuttler $339,501.
Kuttler on Tuesday said there will be several challenges facing his successor, including making sure the college's four-year degrees don't need the approval of the state's board of education and filling budget gaps left by fewer federal earmarks.
"In my 31 years as president, I had almost no layoffs for financial reasons," Kuttler said. "That could change."
Reached after the meeting by phone, Law said he wanted to start by June. He makes $295,000 as president of Tallahassee Community College, but negotiations have yet to begin on what he'll earn in St. Petersburg.
"I'm very proud and honored to have been selected," Law said. "I'm ready to roll up my sleeves and get to work."
Michael Van Sickler can be reached at (727) 893-8037.