St. Petersburg College is one of the Tampa Bay area's great success stories. The main reason is its president of the past 30 years, Carl M. Kuttler Jr.
If you've met Kuttler, you know why. He's a dynamo, an idea generator, a man of infinite interests and plans.
Today, his college has an enrollment of more than 182,000 students. Many are getting four-year degrees that Floridians couldn't have pursued at a community college a few years ago.
Kuttler, 68, also is a collector of people and talent. He meets them, pumps them for what they know, and matches them up with one of his ideas. Big-shot congressmen, local pols, journalists, museum curators, musicians, artists — even Russian strongman Vladimir Putin fall within Kuttler's orbit.
My description of Kuttler is meant neither to butter him up, nor to fatten him for the kill. It is just the truth.
On the other hand, given his personal style, it is not a shock that he faces criticism over the school's hiring of a 33-year-old Kuttler friend (he gave her away at her wedding) as the college's director of international studies.
No one seems to be claiming that Violetta Sweet is doing a bad job — in fact, the chairman of the International Council of the Tampa Bay Region wrote a letter to the editor calling her hiring a "home run." I hear her described as enthusiastic and knowledgeable.
On the other hand, it is fair to say there was a heavy talent pool among the 61 applicants for her job, ranging from Fulbright scholars to folks with experience in Iraq negotiations and the State Department. Sweet, although she was born in Kazakhstan and no doubt has an international perspective, last was employed by the college as a payroll clerk.
Now, let's leave Dr. Kuttler and director Sweet suspended in midair, as it were, while we take a detour across the bay to another magnificent success story — the Lowry Park Zoo.
Like the college, the zoo owes its first-rateness in large part to its longtime chief executive, Lex Salisbury.
And yet zoo chief Salisbury is in hot water these days. It turns out he has launched his own zoological business ventures on the side, and there has been too much interaction (any would be too much) between the public zoo and Lex Salisbury Inc. Frankly, it's surprising to see it in a city the size of Tampa in 2008.
On both sides of the bay, then, we have the rare questioning of public figures more accustomed to praise. It would be understandable if each of the gentlemen, in a private moment, had the same thought: "After all I've done!"
And yet, public institutions are just that — public — no matter how much they have been shaped by personal leaders. It's true for county commissioners, for cities, for schools and even for zoos.
Kuttler should, and will, graciously submit to his board of trustees' proposal for an audit of the college's hiring practices. The trustees should focus on the right balance between his personal style and a professional way of going about these things.
Salisbury, who is in hotter water, needs to see the light. He can run the zoo, or he can be in the private sector, but not both.
In both cases, the gentlemen should realize that they are not on the spot because of an ungrateful public, but precisely because of the significance of their accomplishments. I hope they both go on to even greater success.