Richard Corcoran’s path to FSU presidency hits a snag

If Florida’s education commissioner were to be selected, a possible conflict of interest could jeopardize the university’s standing, one official warns.
Florida education commissioner Richard Corcoran is one of nine shortlist candidates to be the next president of Florida State University.
Florida education commissioner Richard Corcoran is one of nine shortlist candidates to be the next president of Florida State University. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD ]
Published May 14, 2021|Updated May 14, 2021

Florida State University could jeopardize its official standing in higher education circles if it decided to make education commissioner Richard Corcoran its next president, according to a top leader at the organization that gives FSU its accreditation.

Corcoran is one of nine candidates on a short list to be interviewed for the president’s job in the coming days, but several faculty members have sounded alarms. Corcoran, in his position as commissioner, sits on the Florida Board of Governors, which oversees the state’s public universities and has final authority to approve presidential selections for each school.

Related: Florida State poised to select next president. Nine are on short list.

Faculty members pointed out the potential conflict of interest during a search committee meeting Tuesday. They warned that one consequence could be the loss of accreditation from the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges, the main regional accrediting body in 11 southern states.

In a letter Thursday to Board of Governors chairman Sidney Kitson, the association’s president, Belle Wheelan, sounded the same warning.

She wrote that if Corcoran did not step down from his position on the Board of Governors, the university would violate a standard that states governing boards must address issues regarding conflict of interest.

“While it is often especially difficult for members of a governing board who are appointed by the Governor or legislative body to remain independent in their work, it is imperative that they do, or they place the accreditation of the institution(s) they govern in jeopardy,” Wheelan said in the letter. “This not only brings bad press to the institution(s) and the possible loss in enrollment and donations, but it endangers the institutions’ access to federal financial aid.”

She also referenced an association policy ensuring that each university “employs and regularly evaluates administrative and academic officers with appropriate experience and qualifications to lead the institution.”

Three of the nine finalists being interviewed Friday and Saturday, including Corcoran, have no leadership experience at a university.

Corcoran, an attorney and former state legislator from Pasco County, rose to become Florida House Speaker from 2016 to 2018. He earned a bachelor’s degree from St. Leo College in 1989 and a law degree from Regent University in 1996.

At Tuesday’s search committee meeting, FSU Board of Trustees member Nick Iarossi said having candidates with nonacademic backgrounds enhanced the diversity of the field. Search committee members also tried to placate faculty, saying the situation with Corcoran presented no conflict in Florida law or FSU policy.

In a response to Wheelan sent Friday morning, Kitson acknowledged the significance of accreditation standards and said if Corcoran were to advance to the level where he would be voted on by the Board of Governors, he would “abstain from voting and disclose the nature of his interest before the confirmation meeting.”

Wheelan said in an interview Friday that she needed to think about whether Corcoran recusing himself from voting so late in the process would be sufficient for addressing the conflict of interest.

The fact that Corcoran is a politician, she said, is less important than the integrity of the process.

“Taking politics out of higher ed would be an extremely difficult thing to do, it’s always been there,” Wheelan said. “We don’t have any dog in the fight if a politician is appointed, as long at that politician is qualified.”

Corcoran could not be reached Friday for comment.

His application to succeed outgoing president John Thrasher highlighted his involvement in higher education legislation, including expansion of Bright Futures scholarships and measures to increase access and affordability.

“This is an exciting time in the history of Florida State University,” Corcoran wrote in his cover letter. “President John Thrasher has propelled the university to great success. He has done this because he possesses an unusual combination of strengths, including strategic planning, social skills, collaborating with stakeholders, fundraising, legislative experience, and executive leadership skills. I am confident that my track record reflects a similarly broad array of abilities, allowing me to build upon his impressive legacy.”

As the interviews for the nine candidates began Friday morning, the search committee did not address the letter. Some faculty members did though.

Will Hanley, an FSU history professor, said the tone and content of Corcoran’s application showed a lack of understanding about the job.

“Corcoran suggests that because presidents (John) Thrasher and (T.K.) Wetherell were former speakers of the House, he too is qualified for the job,” Hanley said. “Wetherell and Thrasher made their case based on their special attachment to FSU and they enjoyed demonstrated, broad internal support. Their legislative experience was a bonus, not the core of their claim to be qualified.”

Florida State alumnus and Tampa lawyer Hoyt Prindle called in during his work day to raise concerns about the process.

When respected universities end up hiring a politician, “they hire someone like Bob Gates, the former president of Texas A&M, who has national and international gravitas,” Prindle said. “These schools don’t waltz down and pluck someone from the state legislature or state DOE to become president.”

Nancy Rogers, a professor of music theory who also voiced concerns, said in an interview she was not surprised by the warning letter from Wheelan.

“It’s like watching a slow car crash,” she said. “You can see it coming.”

A process that has dragged along for months suddenly sped up, she said, and she felt the position was being treated like a political gift. Three of the last four FSU presidents have come from a political background.

“I think people should be concerned about what appears to be a growing trend of the politicization of education,” she said. I don’t think it helps us as an institution in terms of recruiting faculty. It’s really a bad message to be sending out to the world.”