Big payday for USF’s new cybersecurity leader. But no national search.

The University of South Florida provost says J. Michael “Mike” McConnell, a 76-year-old former national security official, is by far the best choice to lead Cyber Florida.
Cyber Florida’s new executive director, J. Michael “Mike” McConnell, will make $450,000 a year. | [Courtesy of University of South Florida]
Cyber Florida’s new executive director, J. Michael “Mike” McConnell, will make $450,000 a year. | [Courtesy of University of South Florida] [ University of South Florida ]
Published March 4, 2020

TAMPA — Cyber Florida’s new executive director, J. Michael “Mike” McConnell, will make $450,000 a year. As the leader of the state-funded cybersecurity center housed at the University of South Florida, he’ll make more than twice what his predecessor made.

McConnell will also only be required to work on the Tampa campus two days a month, too. The retired 76-year-old Navy vice admiral will mainly work in Washington D.C., where he lives.

But McConnell said he took a pay cut from his position as vice chairman of Booz Allen Hamilton, a defense and intelligence contractor, to come to Tampa Bay.

The university also skipped a national search for the executive director’s job, instead reaching out directly to McConnell.

“There are, quite frankly, very few if any available leaders of Admiral McConnell’s stature that could meet the needs of (Cyber Florida),” said USF Provost Ralph Wilcox.

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He said McConnell’s qualifications were so impressive that the university decided to abandon the traditional hiring process and conduct a “targeted hire.” McConnell spent 30 years working in naval intelligence, then served as Director of National Intelligence under former presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama and led the National Security Agency from 1992 to 1996.

USF and Cyber Florida were already familiar with McConnell: He has served as the center’s chair since its inception in 2014, when the Legislature created it to make Florida the preeminent state for cybersecurity.

Typically, university jobs are filled through a strict hiring process. For most all positions, the university’s Office of Diversity, Inclusion & Equal Opportunity should be contacted to help ensure a diverse applicant pool. A search committee is typically created for director and executive director positions, and the job is required to be posted nationally.

Sridharan, for example, was selected from a pool of 14 applicants after a hiring process conducted by the dean of the Muma College of Business, where the position originally reported, as well as the provost’s office.

As executive director of Cyber Florida, McConnell is responsible for making Florida a leader in cybersecurity. The university notes this will be achieved specifically through research, education and workforce development and outreach to state and local government and business.

He took over Feb. 17 and is responsible for bringing in federal and private funding. The university expects this to take place in Washington, D.C.

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According to an offer letter the university provided to the Tampa Bay Times, $200,000 of McConnell’s salary will come from state funds, while $250,000 will be drawn from non-state sources. Wilcox said the latter is comprised of federal research grants and “unrestricted philanthropy."

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University of South Florida Provost Ralph Wilcox.
University of South Florida Provost Ralph Wilcox. [ AIMEE D. BLODGETT | University of South Florida ]

Sridharan received the same amount of state funds for his $211,385 annual salary, Freeman said. But he only received $11,385 from non-state sources. Wilcox said the pay difference accounts for “vastly different” qualifications.

“That’s in part why one was initially hired as a director with a mandate to stand up a new center,” Wilcox said, “and the other is coming in at the executive director level with a quite different mandate to now accelerate the trajectory of a well-established center onto the national stage.”

He will also be responsible for bringing in federal and private funding. The university expects McConnell to perform those tasks while in Washington, D.C.

“Our budget’s small,” McConnell said. “If we’re going to have impact across the state, it needs to be increased.”

He’ll be reimbursed $1,000 per month for travel, specifically between Washington, D.C. and Tampa, as well as “local accommodation” while staying in Tampa.

Because of McConnell’s split schedule, he’ll choose a tenured professor will take over day-to-day management of Cyber Florida in Tampa.

Sridharan, who will retire in June, declined to comment on the salary or the length of time McConnell is required to spend in the state.

“He’s a fantastic choice with great connections,” Sridharan said. “That’s what excites me.”

But McConnell told the Times that he now believes he’ll be spending more time in Tampa.

“There’s no way I can do what I have to do two days a month,” he said. “I’ll be here a lot.”

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