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Castor's provost problem

The most important decision University of South Florida President Betty Castor will make in the coming months is naming a provost. She must choose wisely. Whoever gets the job will be her second in command with wide responsibility for the day-to-day affairs of the university.

The job requires someone with an unusual combination of intelligence, experience, political sensibilities and an understanding of the needs of a multicampus university in an urban setting.

Unfortunately, one of the leading candidates for the post already has demonstrated a lack of judgment that calls into question his ability to fulfill the high expectations of the office.

When Castor named Michael Kovac interim provost in January, both said he would not be a candidate for the permanent job. Castor then named Kovac chairman of a search committee. He helped pick the 24 members and for five months presided over meetings.

But three weeks before the application deadline, Kovac changed his mind. He liked the job so much he wanted to keep it and said he had been urged by some faculty members to apply. He resigned from the search committee and submitted his application, along with 106 others from around the country. He was one of only two candidates from USF.

At that point, Castor should have pulled the plug on the search committee and started anew. The committee is filled with fine people, but the perception inevitably arose that Kovac would have an edge. Even Kovac has acknowledged that it is a legitimate concern. Yet no one was particularly surprised when he made the first short list of 15 candidates. On Thursday, that list was pared to six. Kovac again made the cut, though there was some disagreement among committee members. The committee expects to winnow the list further to two or three.

Kovac has been dean of engineering at USF since 1986 and meets the minimum qualifications to be provost. He made the latest cut partly because of his short tenure in the job and the trust Castor has placed in him. But Castor, who will make the final decision, must decide if he is the best person for the job.

Castor said Kovac is "exceptionally well qualified" and "has performed very well in this post." Still, her mind is open, Castor said. "There is no fix here," she said. "This is a straight-up search."

But it is not as straight as it could have been. A university encourages its faculty to be skeptical. But skepticism can easily turn to cynicism and that can lead to an erosion of confidence.

As a veteran politician, Castor understands that appearances matter. In this case, the appearances don't look good. If Kovac makes the final cut, Castor ought to ask herself if he has demonstrated the kind of judgment that will be required for the new post.