After a sternly worded letter from a regional accreditation board and the first round of interviews, state education commissioner Richard Corcoran is out of contention to become the next president of Florida State University.
The three finalists selected Saturday to lead Florida’s oldest institution of higher learning all have academic backgrounds.
They are: Robert Blouin, the executive vice-chancellor of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill; Richard McCullough, the vice provost of research at Harvard University and former vice president of research at Carnegie Mellon University; and Dr. Giovanni Piedimonte, a medical doctor and the vice president for research and institutional official at Tulane University. Next week, they’ll take part in open forums with students, faculty and the community.
The end of Corcoran’s candidacy also means the end of an FSU tradition of sorts: Three of the university’s last four presidents came from the world of politics, including outgoing President John Thrasher, a former speaker of the Florida House.
That trend raised concerns this past week when the list of 22 presidential candidates was released. It included Corcoran, a former Pasco County lawmaker who served as House speaker, and former lieutenant governors Jeff Kotkamp and Frank Brogan. All three are Republicans.
Corcoran’s candidacy was of particular concern. He faced criticism after he and eight other candidates advanced in the selection process.
Several faculty members argued that Corcoran, who obtained a bachelor’s degree from Saint Leo University in Pasco County and a law degree from Virginia’s Regent University established by televangelist Pat Robertson, lacked the academic experience needed to lead the university. The other candidates from nonacademic backgrounds who made it to the top nine included FSU’s athletics director David Coburn and lobbyist and attorney Sean Pittman.
Faculty members were also alarmed by a letter sent Thursday by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission, the main regional accrediting body in 11 southern states, to the Florida Board of Governors, which oversees the state’s university system. Association president Belle Wheelan warned of a potential conflict of interest because Corcoran serves on the board as education commissioner, and the board has the final vote on appointing state university presidents.
Wheelan wrote that one of the agency’s standards include requiring universities to hire those with “appropriate experience and qualifications to lead the institution.”
If Corcoran did not step down from a voting role on the board, the association warned it would be a violation of accreditation standards. Loss of accreditation could make FSU students ineligible to receive federal financial aid and prevent faculty from receiving certain grants.
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In a response to the letter, Florida Board of Governors chair Sydney Kitson said the board took the process seriously and that if Corcoran were to become a finalist in the FSU presidential search that he would abstain from voting.
Corcoran’s office did not respond to a request for comment on Saturday.
In his interview for the post, Corcoran said “it was a great honor of a lifetime” to be considered.
He talked about his upbringing and his parents’ emphasis on education. He name-dropped Pinellas County schools superintendent Mike Grego as a supporter. He warned against “East-Bloc, communist thinking,” and apologized for what might be seen as an overly passionate talking style.
Asked how he would improve the university’s standing, Corcoran spoke of improving metrics like student-faculty ratios and faculty compensation by spending more on them.
Nowhere do ranking institutions list being “6-foot-2, 200 pounds and ... an Ivy League PhD” as a requirement in the candidates for FSU president, he said. Instead, he sees himself as the candidate best-equipped to raise money for the university and pledged to share governance with those in academia.
“I know I’m a nonacademic and I can’t fix that,” he said. “I think that the next president should be a dynamic leader who goes out there and gets with the faculty, creates a search committee and grabs hold of a heck of a good vice provost for research.”
Search committee member and Board of Trustee member Ed Burr asked Corcoran to respond to “the conundrum we now find ourselves in” with the accreditation agency’s contention that he has a conflict of interest.
Corcoran said he thought the response from the Board of Governors spoke for itself and he preferred to take the “moral high ground.”
As the meeting ended, Corcoran’s supporters on the search committee complained that he failed to make the cut.
Craig Mateer, a member of the FSU Board of Trustees who expressed support for Corcoran earlier this week, said he was concerned that the association’s letter skewed the process. He asked the search committee to add Corcoran as a fourth finalist. They voted to reject his request.
Mateer said he “would not allow the committee to be bullied” and did not want the trustees to be “handcuffed” by the accreditation group.
“Any businessman in here who read that understood there were no teeth to that,” he said. “It was a bunch of innuendos from a press release that said it was from gossip.” The association’s letter cited the Tallahassee Democrat’s coverage of the search process.
Mateer called the three finalists “No. 2s” because they’re all provosts, while Corcoran has the kind of executive experience needed to lead universities. Most provost’s serve as their institution’s chief academic officer.
Board of Governors member Eric Silagy told the search committee he has the same concerns about the letter, but he supports the three finalists.
“I personally am disappointed the leader of the accrediting organization would write a letter based on what was clearly a lack of information and lack of effort to find out the information,” he said.
Nick Iarossi, another FSU trustee serving on the search committee, said he was “disturbed” by the letter and supported adding Corcoran as a fourth finalist.
“I think this letter was an attempt to subvert diversity of thought,” he said.
But Bridgett Birmingham, an FSU librarian and Faculty Senate member, told the search committee it was unwise for an institution of higher education to dismiss a warning from an accrediting body. She asked Cocoran’s supporters to focus on why they support him.
“I would like to hear some advocacy of how you feel he fits the bill for what FSU needs to move forward,” she said, “as opposed to (the letter), which in some ways I think is a distraction.”
Mateer said he supports Corcoran because “Florida State has a deep history of having people who are connected. One of the biggest values of this university is that it’s in Tallahassee.”
There was also outrage outside the search committee. Board of Governors member Alan Levine posted a series of tweets Saturday after the decision complaining that the accreditation association letter was “tortuous intrusion” into the presidential search process. He warned: “This is not over.”
A similar situation recently unfolded in Georgia. In April the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission sent a warning letter to educational leaders after it was reported that the Georgia Board of Regents was considering appointing as its next chancellor former governor Sonny Perdue, who recently served as former President Donald Trump’s agriculture secretary.
Students and faculty opposed Perdue, and he is no longer being considered to lead the University System of Georgia. That process restarted this week.