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Richard McCullough confirmed as FSU’s new president

The Board of Governors also quizzes the new leader about his views on free speech and approves the next president of New College.
Richard D. McCullough responds to questions last month from the Florida State University Presidential Search Committee. On Wednesday, the state Board of Governors confirmed him as FSU's new president.
Richard D. McCullough responds to questions last month from the Florida State University Presidential Search Committee. On Wednesday, the state Board of Governors confirmed him as FSU's new president. [ ALICIA DEVINE | Tallahassee Democrat ]
Published Jun. 23

ST. PETERSBURG — The Florida Board of Governors confirmed Richard McCullough as next president of Florida State University on Wednesday, ending a sometimes contentious search process.

McCullough, the vice provost for research at Harvard University and former vice president for research at Carnegie Mellon University, was selected after a search that started last October. He will earn a base salary of $700,000 a year with a car allowance of up to $1,000 a month and an unspecified signing bonus for moving expenses.

He is also eligible for an annual $150,000 performance bonus and $500,000 if he completes his five-year contract, which begins Aug. 16. He will live in the university owned president’s residence.

The search for a successor to outgoing president John Thrasher attracted national attention after state education commissioner Richard Corcoran was named as one of the top nine candidates in May by a private search firm. Corcoran is also a member of the Board of Governors, which has the final say on university presidents, raising questions about a potential conflict of interest.

In a strongly worded letter recently, the president of the main regional accrediting body for universities warned that Corcoran’s presence on the board would violate a standard regarding conflict of interest. In Georgia, the search for a university system chancellor came to a halt after the accrediting body began investigating if undue political influence had swayed the process.

Corcoran did not advance to the next round of finalists, but at Wednesday’s Board of Governors meeting chairperson Sydney Kitson reminded colleagues of the letter from Belle Wheelan, president of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission.

“The fact that she sent the letter without verifying the facts or even attempting to educate herself on our process and Florida law is disappointing to say the least and in my mind completely unacceptable,” Kitson said. “My understanding is that this is not the first time Dr. Wheelan has inserted herself into the search process at a university and this has occurred at other higher education systems in the Southeast.”

Kitson said the board had adequate protections in place in its search process to prevent a conflict of interest and added he intends to share his concerns with the board that oversees the accrediting organization. His remarks elicited a smattering of applause.

McCullough addressed the board and spoke of his own beginnings, first attending a community college and scheduling his courses so a friend could give him a ride to campus. He also answered questions from the board about his plans to advance FSU’s research status and his thoughts about free speech issues on campus.

The latter topic arose over the past two days during the board’s meetings at the University of South Florida’s St. Petersburg campus. Among the speakers were Senate President Wilton Simpson, who bemoaned that Florida universities were “socialism factories,” and House Speaker Chris Sprowls, who warned the board against pandering to the “woke mob.”

“I think the purpose of universities is to hear all sides of a debate and learn,” McCullough said in response.

Ed Burr, chair of FSU’s board of trustees, introduced McCullough to the board. “By the time the process was over, we saw Rick embrace the dreams and aspirations of FSU and the people who make it so unique,” he said.

The board also confirmed Patricia Okker as the new president of New College in Sarasota. Okker has been dean of the College of Arts and Science at the University of Missouri since 2017 and holds world records in her weight and class for powerlifting. She has also run the Boston Marathon seven times.

She will earn a base salary of $305,000 a year and receive a one-time stipend of $35,000 to cover moving expenses. She will also receive annual stipends of $8,000 to assist with automobile expenses and $40,000 to assist with housing costs. Her five-year term begins July 1.

The board also passed resolutions honoring Thrasher and Donald O’Shea, the outgoing presidents.