DeSantis ally favored to lead state college, has no higher ed experience

State Rep. Fred Hawkins, who helped lead the governor’s fight against Disney, is a finalist for president of South Florida State College.
Florida Rep. Fred Hawkins, a close ally of Gov. Ron DeSantis, was picked by the South Florida State College District Board of Trustees on Wednesday morning.
Florida Rep. Fred Hawkins, a close ally of Gov. Ron DeSantis, was picked by the South Florida State College District Board of Trustees on Wednesday morning. [ PHELAN M. EBENHACK | AP ]
Published May 11|Updated May 11

TALLAHASSEE — A Republican politician with no higher education experience has emerged as the lone finalist to lead a Central Florida state college after three other candidates abruptly withdrew from a selection process that has raised concerns about political influence.

Republican state Rep. Fred Hawkins, a close ally of Gov. Ron DeSantis, was picked by the South Florida State College District Board of Trustees on Wednesday morning — two days after Hawkins submitted his application and five days after the board voted to lower the education requirements for the position, a move that allows Hawkins to qualify.

Hawkins is still considered a candidate and is scheduled to be interviewed on May 31. But he is already claiming the job.

“Pages turn and new chapters begin. I am looking forward to becoming the next President of South Florida State College,” Hawkins posted on Twitter Wednesday evening.

The seven political appointees on the board of trustees are scheduled to vote for the college’s next president on June 7. Five of the trustees were appointed by DeSantis in 2020.

If the board formally approves Hawkins to replace retiring president Thomas C. Leitzel, it will mark the end of a seven-month presidential search and will put a former Republican lawmaker at the helm of a public community college at a time when DeSantis is trying to aggressively reshape the state’s higher education system.

The college, which has its main campus in Avon Park, conducted a national search, drew dozens of applicants and ultimately landed with Hawkins, a former Osceola County commissioner and twice-elected state House representative. Hawkins, also a former rodeo cowboy who lives in St. Cloud, has led a K-12 education foundation in Osceola County since 2016, has served in higher education legislative committees and on many local associations and boards, including the Osceola County Charter Review Commission.

His record also includes a 2020 arrest for impersonating a law enforcement officer. Prosecutors agreed to drop the charges if he completed a diversion program. DeSantis suspended him from being an Osceola County commissioner due to the charges.

The Times/Herald has reached out to Hawkins through texts and calls seeking comment about his selection and the application process. He had not responded as of Thursday afternoon.

Outside influence questions

The events that led to Hawkins’ selection have raised questions about whether the presidential search process was influenced by outside political forces.

The first signs came during an April 17 board meeting, when the trustees were discussing selection of one of three finalists for the college presidency. When the meeting ended, all candidates had withdrawn, and one of the trustees, Joe Wright, “expressed his concerns about serving on the board and intervening issues that occurred,” according to a copy of the draft minutes from the workshop.

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The three finalists — Amy Bosley, John M. Davis and Vicky Wood — had doctoral degrees and administrative experience at community colleges. Bosley is the vice president for institutional planning, development and chief of staff at Valencia College in Orlando; Davis is the vice president of administrative services at Germanna Community College in Locust Grove, Virginia, and Wood is the president of Washington State Community College in Marietta, Ohio.

At a May 3 meeting, the board voted to lower education requirements to allow those without a terminal degree to apply. Successful applicants would still need “a combination of credentials and experience sufficient to warrant the respect and confidence of a wide range of college constituents,” board chairperson Terry Atchley said, adding that “candidates with a variety of leadership experiences are strongly encouraged to apply.”

In his resume, Hawkins lists a bachelor’s degree in pre-law and political science from the University of Akron and says he is “applying to University of Florida online masters program.” A UF spokesperson did not immediately say whether he has already enrolled for courses.

Political affiliations come into play

After the May 3 meeting, trustee Louis Kirschner told a Tampa Bay Times reporter that he thought the three finalists who withdrew were “pretty good,” but that he did not see any problem with state officials weighing in on the selection process. Kirschner has served on the board since 1999 and is the chairperson of the DeSoto County Republican Executive Committee.

“You have to understand that we are political appointees, and they were all Democrats,” Kirschner said of the three finalists. “The governor doesn’t appoint all Republican trustees and expect us to select a Democrat.”

Political orientation may not have mattered 10 years ago, Kirschner said. But he said he doesn’t trust a left-leaning president not to carry “woke” ideology into their leadership of the school. Applicants need dedication not just to education but also to the character and integrity of the school, he said.

When asked about the governor’s involvement in the selection process, DeSantis press secretary Bryan Griffin said the decision was up to the board of trustees, “but of course we support the selection of a qualified individual who is committed to truth and academics and not trendy ideological agendas.”

“The withdrawals did not indicate any intervention from the governor, and that is really all we know,” Melissa Kuehnle, a spokesperson for the college, told the Times/Herald on Wednesday when asked about the previous three finalists.

Hawkins has close ties with the governor. He has served in the Florida House of Representatives since 2020, and DeSantis endorsed his reelection bid in 2022. Most recently, Hawkins championed legislation to implement DeSantis’ high-profile plan to take over Disney’s special taxing district after the company opposed Florida’s Parental Rights in Education Act, also known as the Don’t Say Gay bill.

Griffin did not respond on Wednesday and Thursday when asked whether the governor supported Hawkins as a finalist.

Criminal history and diversity statements

Hawkins does not have teaching experience, but he has served as the president and CEO of the Osceola Education Foundation since 2016. In that role, he oversees scholarship programs, the operation of three charter schools, fundraisers and community relations, according to Hawkins’ resume and application.

At a time when DeSantis is aggressively trying to eliminate diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives at higher education institutions, it is notable that Hawkins’ foundation prominently features an “Equity, Diversity and Inclusion” statement.

“Our strength comes from our diverse community, and we celebrate the visible and invisible qualities that make each person unique, including race, gender and/or gender identity, age, sexuality, ability, religion, national origin and any other identity,” the statement reads.

Hawkins, a longtime Osceola County commissioner, wrote in his application to be the state college’s president that he is leaving his post at the foundation to “continue to use my knowledge in education in a different capacity.”

In his application, he also disclosed his criminal history. He was arrested in 2020 for impersonating a law enforcement officer to try to gain access to a meeting of a homeowners association to which he did not belong. Hawkins was then an Osceola County commissioner, and he was suspended from office after the arrest.

Hawkins used his “special deputy” badge — an honorary title — and threatened to arrest a security guard who tried to prevent him from entering the room, according to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. He did not have arresting powers and no one from the sheriff’s office had requested him to take action as a special deputy at the homeowners association election, law enforcement said.

Hawkins reached a plea deal in the case and went through a diversion program, court records show.

Tampa Bay Times reporter Ian Hodgson contributed to this report.