The St. Petersburg College Board of Trustees has failed to fulfill its obligation to provide for a smooth transition in leadership at one of the county's most important institutions. Two of the five trustees were too eager in December to embrace a lavish retirement package for departing president Carl Kuttler, and that issue remains unresolved. Now two other trustees have corrupted the search process for Kuttler's successor, and there is no easy way to right the wrong.
When Kuttler abruptly announced his retirement last year after more than three decades as president, the trustees started off on the right foot. They hired a consultant to handle the initial screening, set minimum criteria for applicants and appointed a search committee to recommend finalists to the board. But the selection of university and college presidents is often politicized, and this one has proven to be no exception with former St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Baker as one of the candidates. The difference this time is St. Petersburg College trustees Deveron Gibbons and Ken Burke improperly manipulated last week's search committee meeting to keep Baker off the list of finalists rather than to ensure a favored candidate made the cut.
Gibbons, who was not endorsed by Baker last year in his unsuccessful campaign for mayor, got his political payback. After claiming for months he would remain neutral in the college president search because of his ties to Baker, Gibbons urged the search committee last week to exclude Baker. That's a fine way to treat a former friend.
Then Burke, the county court clerk and a member of the search committee, forced a change in the committee's voting rules in the middle of the process. The result was that Baker fell short of being named to the group of four finalists that includes two sitting college presidents and two college administrators. It was a heavy-handed move intended to ensure the ex-mayor's application would not be considered by the full college board of trustees, and it should not have been allowed.
Burke maintains his issue is that the next St. Petersburg college president should be an academic (Baker holds a law degree but not a Ph.D.). Regardless of the merits of that argument, the college trustees had previously decided not to require the next president to hold a doctorate or have previous educational experience. So this was Burke's back-door way of winning a point he had previously lost.
When the trustees meet Friday, they will confront a mess of their own making. Faculty members who were no fans of Kuttler, who did not have a doctorate or much use for the faculty's advice, are expected to show up to insist upon an academic. Baker's supporters will respond with their own show of force to complain he was treated unfairly. With Burke and Gibbons compromised, there is no easy solution for the three other trustees: chairman Terry Brett, Richard Johnston and Evelyn Bilirakis. But some options work better than others at restoring the integrity of the search process and insuring St. Petersburg College has sound leadership.
First, the trustees should not bow to pressure to add Baker to the list of finalists. That would be just as political as the effort to keep him off. Directing the search committee to reconvene using their original voting rules makes more sense, but it would be cumbersome and divisive.
The cleanest approach for the trustees would be to determine whether they can unite behind one of the current four finalists. If they can, that person should be the next president of St. Petersburg College despite the search committee's shortcomings. If they cannot, they should begin a new search from scratch.