CLEARWATER — Through silent tallies on a whiteboard, the list of hopefuls for the job of St. Petersburg College president has been narrowed to five.
A room of onlookers sat quietly on Monday while members of the college's search committee drew check marks beside the candidates they saw fit to advance to the final round. In just 20 minutes, without discussion, the top five emerged.
The committee's work was done.
But some members have questioned the process in recent weeks, particularly the lack of conversation about candidates, and the resulting tension has erupted into open debate.
By mid-March, the committee had trimmed the pool to 18 candidates by reading applications. Search consultant Jeff Hockaday asked members to take turns at the whiteboard, marking those who should advance.
"We'll see what happens," he said.
A few top scorers emerged, but several were close.
Discussing why people voted a certain way could inform better decisions, former trustee Ken Burke said.
"We're here at the Collaborative Labs, but we're really collaborating by just tabulating our scores," he said, referring to the name of SPC's conference facility in Clearwater. "(Hearing) what other people see in their resume would help me say, 'Gosh, maybe I read that a little bit wrong, and I may want to adjust something.'"
Exchanging ideas is "what I think a committee does," said Albert Farr, chair of the communications department. Moving on without conversation could be irresponsible, he said.
But Hockaday, who has led more than 80 presidential searches, including the one that brought outgoing president William D. Law Jr. to SPC in 2010, said such conversation would be "dangerous." He said the best candidate will emerge through the consensus of individual opinions, without outside influence.
Trustee Deveron Gibbons defended Hockaday's process. To ensure a fair search, he said, concerns should be brought to the consultant, not the committee.
But a public forum is the perfect place to talk through pros and cons, said Richard Mercadante, president of the faculty governance organization. He mentioned sending the initial list of 50-plus applicants to faculty, who replied with feedback and links to "red flags" that came up in their research. Mercadante brought some concerns to Hockaday, who told the faculty representative that his information was wrong.
"These candidates are obviously putting their best foot forward, so some of the pertinent information may not be in the binder," Mercadante said. "We're talking about a $300,000 position, so I think we have to make sure that we do enough vetting."
Gibbons fired back, challenging Mercadante for "questioning the integrity of this board."
"This is not a witch hunt, Dr. Mercadante," Gibbons said. "You are not going to bully this committee."
A motion to discuss the candidates further failed.
"I think transparency is essential in these kinds of deliberations, but that was not the vote," Mercadante said.
The SPC board of trustees will now take over, bringing the finalists to campus for interviews before making a hire this summer.
The candidates are a University of South Florida St. Petersburg dean, the provost of Santa Fe College, the president of the College of Central Florida, and two St. Petersburg College employees, a provost and a senior vice president.
"Any one of them would make a wonderful president," said Terry Brett, head of the search committee and former trustees chair.
He said he was comfortable with Hockaday's process.
"His advice was to try to refrain from public comment about the candidates, especially information that may not be accurate," Brett said. "He felt that was a slippery slope to go down, and the majority of the committee agreed."
Some faculty members, however, felt they were being denied a voice.
"How do I say this, how disappointed I am?" asked Maggie Knoop, professor emeritus. "Voting on a board is about as high school as you can get."
Gibbons said he supports an open process, but with caution.
"You've got people going out trying to be Sherlock Holmes," he said. "You can't be a renegade out here, assuming you have more information than the consultant. ... We have to be clean and be careful that we don't overstep."
Contact Claire McNeill at [email protected] or (727) 893-8321.