ST. PETERSBURG — Former St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Baker is out as the next president of St. Petersburg College.
The school's presidential search committee dropped him as a semifinalist with a 7-6 vote Thursday, after more than an hour of maneuvering by faculty members and a pair of college trustees who sought to oust him from consideration.
"I feel the president of the college should be an academic," said college trustee and search committee member Ken Burke, who became the de facto leader of the group opposing Baker's application.
"I like Rick. He has a lot of great credentials. I told him to run for attorney general. I'd vote for him, I'd work for him," Burke said. "But I think it's important to have an academic background to lead the college."
Baker was ranked third after a first round of voting. But the 13-member search committee ultimately decided to move forward with four different finalists — two sitting college presidents and two college administrators. Those finalists will be forwarded to the board of trustees.
When it was clear Baker would not be named a finalist, more than two dozen faculty members attending Thursday's meeting erupted in cheers.
"Obviously I'm disappointed, but I remain a big fan of St. Petersburg College," Baker said Thursday evening. He declined to elaborate, or discuss his future.
How things happened Thursday was chaotic, and at times a combination of surreal and unexpected.
Committee members had said they intended on recommending three to five finalists for the college's trustees to consider.
After a first ballot, Baker was ranked behind only Peninsula College (Wash.) president Thomas Keegan and Tallahassee Community College president Bill Law. A group of other candidates were tied for fourth place.
At that point trustee Deveron Gibbons, who was watching from the back of the room, shot up toward a microphone. Gibbons decided last year to remove himself from the presidential search process because of his personal friendship with Baker.
But, now, Gibbons wanted to say something as a public citizen.
It was not the word of a friend.
Gibbons looked at a dry erase board that tallied the votes for each of the eight semifinalists.
"I think it is very clear that two people are way out in front of the rest of the group," said Gibbons, noting that Law and Keegan had 11 votes while Baker only had six. "Lead today and send a clear message."
Search committee chairman Richard Johnston originally thought a motion to that effect — including only Keegan and Law as finalists had passed — eliciting more cheers from the audience. But it actually failed 7-6.
A subsequent motion to include Keegan, Law and Baker as finalists also failed 7-6.
Next, the committee — based on Burke's suggestion — got creative.
It decided that Law and Keegan would be finalists, then put the others back in a pool for a second vote.
Burke suggested, and the committee accepted, that each member select two people. Members supporting Baker's application, including Scott Daniels, tried to say that since committee members weren't able to rank their preferences, it wasn't a fair system. But Daniels was outvoted.
In subsequent votes Baker kept falling short of being a finalist, with the group ultimately choosing these four: Law; Keegan; Paula Gastenveld, assistant to the chancellor of the Kentucky Community and Technical College System; and B. Kaye Walter, an executive of Valencia Community College in Orlando.
"I've never seen a process with so much focus on who to keep out," said Pinellas County commissioner and search committee member Ken Welch, who supported Baker's application.
Faculty members countered that their concerns weren't specifically over Baker, but his lack of higher education experience. Baker, like former St. Petersburg College president Carl Kuttler, does not have a Ph.D. or degree in education.
Said search committee and faculty member George Greenlee: "We don't want to select someone who's going to have to learn the job on the fly."
Trustees hope to name a president by April.