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Could St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Baker be the next president of SPC?

ST. PETERSBURG — Whether it was Congress, a job with Gov. Charlie Crist, or most recently, running for governor, Rick Baker's future always has been a topic for discussion.

Enter St. Petersburg College president Carl Kuttler's surprise resignation announcement Tuesday.

Cue the speculation.

Could this be Baker's next job?

Baker is in the middle of his annual family vacation in North Carolina and unreachable to talk about the job himself.

But friends say SPC's presidency may be a perfect fit.

"If he wants it, I know he could do a very good job at it," said City Council member Herb Polson, who previously worked as the city's lobbyist. "Because I know how hard he works at it. And how much he loves it."

Kuttler added to the speculation by suggesting Baker as a possible replacement. And Baker said as late as last week that he would be interested in working for SPC, though he wouldn't say in what role.

For years, there was one path to becoming a university president: Professors became department heads, then deans, then provosts, then presidents.

But increasingly, politicians and chief executives like Baker are moonlighting in the academic arena.

Florida is not immune to the trend.

The state's lieutenant governor under Jeb Bush, Frank Brogan, was hired as president of Florida Atlantic University and this month was named chancellor for the State University System of Florida. Brogan has a master's degree in education but not a Ph.D., and worked previously as superintendent of schools in Martin County and the state's elected education commissioner.

Former Florida House Speaker T.K. Wetherell is currently president of Florida State University. Wetherell has a doctorate in education administration and had served as president of Tallahassee Community College.

John Delaney, the former mayor of Jacksonville and a lawyer by trade, is president of the University of North Florida.

And former Hillsborough County Commissioner Betty Castor became president of the University of South Florida after a stint as the state's elected education commissioner. She holds a master's degree in education.

In each case, what they lacked on their curriculum vitae they tried to make up for in connections and leadership.

In each case, they slowly won over skeptics who initially criticized them as underqualified.

Baker might have it tougher.

Baker lacks any formal education background — he holds an M.B.A. and a law degree from Florida State — and instead builds his education resume entirely on his work as mayor.

As the city's chief executive, Baker made schools a centerpiece of his administration, creating a deputy mayor position to coordinate with local schools.

He built a successful scholarship program for economically disadvantaged students relying on private donations. In his eight-plus years in office, Baker has awarded 875 scholarships and will award 125 more this fall.

Baker also launched a mentoring program and solicited corporate sponsors for city schools. Bush named him chair of the governor's Municipal Mentoring Initiative in 2002.

Later, Baker was tapped as chairman of the National League of Cities School Improvement Task Force and helped build a research partnership between the University of South Florida St. Petersburg and international research firm SRI.

Baker was considered as a candidate to head the Department of Education in both Bush and Crist administrations.

"He links the importance of education to the vitality and the growth of the community, which is very refreshing because we don't have that kind of thinking going on enough in academia," said Terry Boehm, president of the Pinellas Education Foundation, a partner in St. Petersburg's scholarship program.

Boehm said Baker would be a great choice for the SPC job. "I think anybody who deals with Rick Baker knows he's the real deal."

St. Petersburg College's five-member board of trustees will discuss replacing Kuttler Aug. 11.

Two of Baker's close friends, Deveron Gibbons and Terry Brett, are trustees who could support a Baker candidacy.

But a third trustee, Ken Burke, already has said he doesn't think Baker is qualified. In his mind, the college's next president must have a higher education background.

Baker's a good person, Burke said. "But that doesn't mean he's a good fit for what we have to accomplish."

Could St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Baker be the next president of SPC? 07/22/09 [Last modified: Thursday, July 23, 2009 6:37am]
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