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Harvard vice provost selected as FSU’s next president in unanimous vote

The choice must be ratified by the Board of Governors in June.
Richard McCullough speaks to the Florida State University Board of Trustees on Monday during his interview to be the school’s next president. The trustees voted unanimously in favor of McCullough, who is vice provost for research at Harvard University.
Richard McCullough speaks to the Florida State University Board of Trustees on Monday during his interview to be the school’s next president. The trustees voted unanimously in favor of McCullough, who is vice provost for research at Harvard University. [ Florida State University ]
Published May 24, 2021|Updated May 24, 2021

After a contentious process, the Florida State University Board of Trustees unanimously voted Monday to make Richard D. McCullough the school’s next president. His selection must be confirmed by the Florida Board of Governors at their next meeting June 22.

McCullough is the vice provost for research at Harvard University and former vice president for research at Carnegie Mellon University. He was one of three finalists who fielded an array of questions Monday on protecting universities from foreign influences, their strategies for growth and improving rankings and their thoughts on a university’s role in the midst of social change.

McCullough was described by trustees as “a good fit,” and one trustee said he already had “FSU Swag.”

McCullough, born in Mesquite, Texas, spoke of his journey as a first-generation student, first attending Eastfield Community College and then the University of Texas at Dallas before earning his doctorate at Johns Hopkins University and working as a postdoctoral researcher at Columbia University. Affordable education, he said, was key to his success.

Without it, he said, “I would not have been able to enjoy the social mobility I have.”

McCullough also spoke of his experience in hiring more women faculty members, raising the ranks of programs, writing strategic plans and working with high-level donors. He discussed his vision to grow Tallahassee into a city like Charlotte, N.C., working with industry to better understand workforce demands.

“We in academics have not done a good job there, I don’t think,” he said.

Board of Trustees member Peter Collins led the motion to make him president.

In response to a question about the university’s satellite campuses, McCullough said he did not know much about them. The ability to say what you don’t know, Collins said, was an answer he respected.

McCullough said university classes were part of a free market of ideas and a place for scholarship, but not advocacy.

Collins asked him about his stance on the social change going on across the nation. While the change is important, Collins argued, some of the steps taken to achieve it have been questionable. He mentioned protests and names taken off buildings.

“Universities need to be the place where we have those discussions and debate,” McCullough responded. “Let’s get all sides up there. Let’s get both sides on the far ends. Let’s put them together and have that discussion.”

Universities aren’t there to change minds, he said, but rather to educate.

“I think some universities have gotten away from that,” McCullough said. “It needs to be open and honest and not violent. There’s no place for violence.... This is a time universities need to lead and not leave it to who can yell the loudest.”

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McCullough also said he believed the university could do more in fundraising and corporate partnerships to increase the funds it gets outside of state money.

He said he thought FSU could be a Top 10 public university and gain entry into the Association of American Universities, a league of premier research schools, in the next five years. He said the school could focus on student success metrics first, focusing on getting employment and graduation rates steadied.

He said he hoped to see faculty growth, attracting new faculty and retaining “the best.” He also said making investments in supporting arts and humanities was important. Harvard, he said, operated as a decentralized university and his job was to bring faculty together for interdisciplinary work.

McCullough was selected over Robert Blouin, vice chancellor and provost of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and Dr. Giovanni Piedimonte, a practicing physician and the vice president of research at Tulane University.

Faculty Senate president and Board of Trustees member Eric Chicken said he thought Blouin was the faculty’s preferred candidate because of his realistic approach to advancing rankings.

“McCullough is a great candidate, but I and the majority of faculty I spoke with prefer Blouin,” Chicken said. “It’s great to shoot for the moon, but I don’t know that that’s a realistic five-year timeline.”

The way the top three finalists were selected drew some concern.

Last week, board of trustees member Craig Mateer sent a letter to fellow trustees and the Board of Governors outlining concerns about the process. He previously pushed to add state education commissioner Richard Corcoran to the list of finalists but was voted down.

He alleged that the process may have violated sunshine laws, from the way the search firm was selected to the way the top three candidates were chosen. “Decisions were made in secret and behind closed doors,” Mateer wrote.

Board of Governors member Alan Levine echoed those concerns in recent days, saying the process was tainted by outside influence from the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission. The accrediting organization had raised issues about Corcoran’s candidacy for the president’s job.

Levine also questioned why the top three candidates were announced after private lunch conversations with the head of the private search firm.

Other Board of Governors members and trustees said there was no violation of sunshine laws. After the head of the search firm talked to each of the committee members at a private lunch, he announced the top three finalists and the committee discussed them publicly, with the option of adding a fourth that any committee member could suggest.

“It’s simply not true this was done in some secret, backroom deal,” search committee member and Board of Governors member Eric Silagy said.

Before Monday’s vote, McCullough said he initially was hesitant to participate in an open process, but ended up enjoying it and appreciated seeing the interviews with other candidates.

He said he would be standing on the shoulder of giants and looked forward to taking over from outgoing president John Thrasher if given the opportunity.

“I have the fire in the belly to do it,” McCullough said. “And I’m extremely excited.”

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