ST. PETERSBURG — Carl Kuttler, the man who guided St. Petersburg College through a tremendous era of growth and who has been celebrated for his ability to forge partnerships worldwide, is retiring.
Kuttler, 69, made the surprise announcement Tuesday at the tail end of an otherwise routine Board of Trustees meeting. The news shocked both trustees and Kuttler's own staff.
Later, Kuttler said only a handful of people knew of his plan to step down after 31 years as college president.
"I'm eight years beyond Social Security age and I'm not tired," Kuttler said. "I've got some exciting potential things. … I want to do something in the international arena with some type of diplomatic mission."
Kuttler said he would remain as president while trustees search for his successor. The board will meet Aug. 11 to discuss a plan to replace him.
In an interview with the St. Petersburg Times, Kuttler suggested two prominent local names: St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Baker and Pinellas County Schools superintendent Julie Janssen.
Trustees were hesitant to suggest possible replacements. Instead, they focused on talking about Kuttler, one of the longest-serving college or university presidents in Florida.
"The guy's an icon in the education field," said board member Deveron Gibbons. "And he's going to be irreplaceable as far as I'm concerned."
Kuttler 'a force'
Installed as president in 1978, Kuttler will leave behind a long history of building the college in every direction.
During his tenure, the college has grown from a two-year junior college to a four-year state college that offers more than 20 baccalaureate degrees.
The college has expanded from two campuses to 10 learning sites and owns and operates two museums — the Leepa-Rattner Museum of Art in Tarpon Springs and the Florida International Museum in St. Petersburg — as well as the Palladium Theater in downtown St. Petersburg.
The college also has built partnerships in Russia, Guatemala, China, Puerto Rico and elsewhere under Kuttler's watch.
"You'll never fill the shoes," said state Sen. Dennis Jones, who works in the college's economic development department.
In his resignation letter, Kuttler said he has worked an extra 1,000 days in the past 15 years.
"He is a force," said board chairman Terry Brett. "There is no doubt about it. When I joined the trustees about a year ago, I learned early on how he lives and breathes St. Pete College every day and well into the evening. He doesn't have many days off. He's an incredible visionary."
Before the announcement Tuesday, trustees heaped praise on another Kuttler idea — helping train police officers in Puerto Rico.
They then gave Kuttler glowing marks during his annual review. An hour later, Kuttler announced he was leaving.
Kuttler, who has been married to Evelyn Kuttler for more than 40 years and has three adult children, will retire into the Florida Retirement System. School officials say he will earn $195,000 to $210,000 a year.
"It's too bad, in a lot of ways, certainly for St. Petersburg," said Tom Gregory, a former chairman of the St. Petersburg College board.
"I learned really from the inside how amazing Carl's contributions were, not only to that college, but to the community. It was not just a college, but an entity that benefited the entire community," Gregory said.
Not without criticism
While Kuttler largely is lauded for his accomplishments, his tenure is not without controversy.
Critics describe his leadership style as heavy-handed and at times dictatorial. They say he plays favorites with employees. Kuttler says the criticisms are unfounded and the opinions of the minority.
In 1995, employees complained the college was tolerating sexual harassment. The college's insurer paid $60,000 to settle a lawsuit claiming that a vice president had harassed an accounting clerk.
At the same time, Gov. Lawton Chiles launched an investigation into Kuttler's administration amid allegations that the college's foundation had bought airplanes and condominiums for Kuttler, among other things. Sydney McKenzie, general counsel to the state Board of Community Colleges, cleared Kuttler of all charges. McKenzie now serves as SPC's general counsel.
And last year, Kuttler spent more than an hour with the board of trustees' lawyer discussing allegations he was showing favoritism to a friend who works for the college.
The trustees later requested an audit of the situation surrounding the employee, 34-year-old Violetta Sweet. Sweet was hired to a $64,000-a-year administrative position even though dozens of applicants appeared more qualified. Before she was hired, Kuttler sent Sweet to a conference in Washington, paid her $500 a day and arranged a tour of the White House.
He also used his credit card to pay part of her expenses.
The audit found that no school or state rules were broken, but said that changes to the college's hiring process were needed.
Who will replace him?
Talk of who will replace Kuttler is sure to be intense, and already has started with Kuttler's suggestion that Baker, the mayor of St. Petersburg, could be the college's next president.
Baker is leaving office this year after serving two terms as mayor. He has branded himself the education mayor, but does not have an academic background.
"I would look for someone with higher education credentials," said trustee Ken Burke. "Rick Baker has no academic credentials that I know of."
But Kuttler did not have an academic background when he came to SPC, then St. Petersburg Junior College. Like Baker, Kuttler holds a law degree.
"Many people who've transferred from leadership roles in one arena into the academic arena have done extremely well," trustee Dick Johnston said.
Baker is on vacation in North Carolina and could not be reached. However, he said last week he would be intrigued by working in some position with SPC when his term ends.
Baker also has two close friends on the five-member board of trustees in Brett and Gibbons. Both men helped manage Baker's campaigns for mayor.
Neither would discuss the prospects of their friend becoming college president.
"This is really pretty early to be talking about names," Brett said.
As for Janssen, she thought a reporter was joking when told Kuttler mentioned her as a candidate for college president.
"I have a great job and we have a lot of work to do here," Janssen said. "I really think I'm right where I belong right now."
Times staff writer Mary Jane Park and news researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.