Thursday, February 22, 2018
Education

St. Petersburg College seeks public input in its search for a new president

TARPON SPRINGS — The choosing of a president is a serious undertaking, and each college has its own personality and priorities.

Should the leader be defined by a respect for teaching? Or are business ties more important? Will he or she be approachable and charismatic? A good listener? A visionary?

Officials at St. Petersburg College are asking the public to help answer those and other questions as they put the finishing touches on the job description for the school's next president. They'll be seeking input tonight at SPC's Midtown campus in St. Petersburg, the second of two such forums.

At the first session Thursday in Tarpon Springs, trustees heard requests that the next president have classroom experience and respect for the arts. A museum board member asked that the leader be willing to battle state legislation that would allow guns on college campuses. And faculty members nodded as Shannon Ulrich, their representative in Clearwater, spoke while balancing her infant on her hip.

"I would love to see somebody that has some background in dealing with the budget both in feast and times of famine," Ulrich said. "I also would like to see somebody who has a record of involving faculty when coming up with initiatives."

Biology professor Jennifer Fernandes asked for someone who has a record of expanding courses instead of slashing them.

"Even in basics, we are very, very slim," she said. "Courses that I taught years ago that used to have four or five offerings are now down to one."

The search for the college's seventh president was set in motion last fall when William D. Law Jr. shocked college leaders by announcing that he will retire in July.

His seven-year presidency has focused on student success and community relationships, brought to life in projects like the new Midtown campus. His predecessor, Carl M. Kuttler, spent his 31 years in the president's chair shepherding the school through major expansions.

The college boasts more than 100 degree programs and campuses throughout Pinellas County, with an enrollment of 44,000 students, 70 percent of whom are part-time.

Now Law is watching from the wings as the search process unfolds, glad this particular stress is past him. Whoever succeeds him will take on a role that Law said is harder than ever.

"You've got to be the chief lobbyist and chief spokesperson. You've got to deal with the board and those personalities. You have to listen to and assuage the faculty," he said. "And working with students has changed enormously. If I hear an email coming in the middle of the night, I can bet that it's going to be from a student."

There's no strolling in at 10 a.m. and pouring a cup of coffee. Instead, there are constant meetings with vice presidents, committees, trustees and lawmakers. There are dinners, panels, sitdowns with business leaders and "Pizza with the President," where he tells students, "If you ask it, I'll answer it."

Presidents have to know the industry's ins-and-outs, such as the ever-shifting sands of financial aid issues, Law said. They have to be trustworthy, open to criticism and energetic, even on days when they just want to get home and take off their shoes.

"You have to be able to craft a vision," Law said. "Here's where we are, here's where we're headed, and here's how were going to get there."

No applications have been submitted, but Law suspects presidents at smaller community colleges will apply for his job, as well as a few current vice presidents. He said he won't weigh in on the decision.

Leah McRae, education liaison for St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman, worked closely with Law on major projects during his tenure, including the Midtown campus.

"He was a huge proponent of creating opportunities for underserved students," McRae said. "We're hopeful whoever takes that place will continue that spirit of stewardship."

A 13-member search committee created by the board of trustees will oversee the process. It includes faculty, staff, students and current and former trustees. Terry Brett, former trustees chair, is its leader.

The college brought in search consultant Jeff Hockaday, who has led more than 80 college president searches, including the one that brought Law to St. Petersburg. He said he expects 50 to 75 applications.

Hockaday, Brett and a faculty representative will narrow the pool to 20 candidates, and the screening committee will bring it down to 10. Each remaining candidate will record an eight-minute video responding to questions.

In early April, the search committee will hand trustees a list of four to six finalists. Then, each finalist will visit the college for two days.

Trustees will vote in mid May.

Law will stay on board until the new president arrives this summer.

Contact Claire McNeill at [email protected] or (727) 893-8321.

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