By Ryan Dailey, The News Service of Florida
TALLAHASSEE — Nine candidates vying to become president of Florida State University, including a mix of academic leaders and politically connected players, are set to be interviewed as the school seeks a replacement for retiring President John Thrasher.
The university’s Presidential Search Advisory Committee whittled a list of 22 applicants Tuesday, with interviews of the nine remaining candidates scheduled to start Friday.
Three candidates — state Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran, Florida State Athletic Director David Coburn and Tallahassee attorney and lobbyist Sean Pittman — have deep political ties in the state Capitol and have spent at least the majority of their careers outside of academia.
Corcoran served as state House speaker before getting appointed by Gov. Ron DeSantis as education commissioner. Before moving to FSU, Coburn spent three decades in staff positions in the Legislature, including chief of staff for two House speakers and a Senate president.
Leslie Pantin, a search committee member and former member of the university’s Board of Trustees, said Coburn has been able to “take the pulse” of FSU as its athletic director and before that as chief of staff for Thrasher and previous university President Eric Barron.
Pittman received backing from several committee members, including one of the FSU students on the committee.
Christian Hall, a senior at the university, said Pittman would be a good candidate based on his potential to raise money and because he is a graduate of the school who served as student body president.
“We’re looking for a diverse pool of candidates,” Hall, who is Black, said, “Sean brings experiences and perspectives as a Black professional that enables him to understand and respond to the calls for equality, social justice and equity on campus that we as students are concerned about.”
Corcoran was the only finalist who received some skepticism from committee members Tuesday. If selected, he would become the third former House speaker to lead the university during the past two decades, following Thrasher and the late T.K. Wetherell. Also, the late Talbot “Sandy” D’Alemberte, who served as president before Wetherell, was a former lawmaker.
Bridgett Birmingham, a member of the search committee, said the panel needs to consider the history of appointing former House speakers “as we move toward making progress.”
Corcoran also sits on the state university system’s Board of Governors, which ultimately would have to sign off on the new FSU president. Corcoran’s role on the board sparked questions about a conflict of interest.
“These conflicts can lead to a loss of accreditation” for the university, committee member Pam Perrewe, an FSU professor, said. “Leading roles in higher education should not be treated as political pawns or a career reward for state political figures lacking other qualifications in higher ed administration.”
But several committee members backed Corcoran.
“I think he follows a long list of speakers of the House who have done very good jobs in running universities,” committee member Craig Mateer said.
Other candidates with more-extensive backgrounds in academia have held top posts at large universities in other states.
Alberto Pimentel, who runs a head-hunting firm hired by FSU to bring candidates to the committee, said the applicants with backgrounds in academia generated the most interest from the committee.
Robert Blouin, provost of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill received particular interest.
“I have some faculty friends at the University of North Carolina, and they couldn’t say enough kind things about him. He’s got integrity, he’s got everything it takes,” Perrewe said.
Other candidates who will be interviewed include Richard McCullough, vice provost for research at Harvard University; Giovanni Piedimonte, vice president for research at Tulane University; Mary Ann Rankin, a former provost at the University of Maryland; and Michael Young, a former president of Texas A&M University.
Randy Hanna, dean and CEO of Florida State’s Panama City campus and a former chancellor of the state college system, was a late addition to the list of nine candidates after the committee agreed he deserved to be interviewed.
“When I was on the board of trustees at FSU, we were getting ready to get rid of (the) Panama City campus,” Pantin said when asked about Hanna, “and he was given that challenge, or that hot potato … he was up to the challenge and turned that campus around.”
Several university faculty members addressed the committee Tuesday and expressed a desire for candidates with experience in academia.
“It’s a real concern if our presidential hire is perceived as being politically motivated,” said Matthew Lata, a professor who is the United Faculty of Florida’s chapter president at FSU.
The finalists will sit for hour-long interviews starting at 9 a.m. Friday and continuing on Saturday morning.
“We’ve talked to a lot of candidates, and some terrific people with great backgrounds. It’s been difficult for the committee to get down to this number, and we’ve got even a tougher task, I think, going forward,” committee Chairman Bob Sasser said
Notably absent from the list of finalists was Frank Brogan, who served as lieutenant governor under former Gov. Jeb Bush and whose background also includes serving as state education commissioner, president of Florida Atlantic University and chancellor of the university system.
Thrasher, who has served as president since 2014, announced last year that he planned to retire.