Six of the nine candidates vying to become Florida State University’s next president took center stage on Friday, taking part in extensive interviews with the Florida State University Presidential Search Advisory Committee. The remaining three candidate interviews are slated for Saturday morning. Upon completion of the interviews and assessments, the Committee has been charged with recommending at least two finalists to the FSU Board of Trustees for a final selection.
During the previous Presidential search in 2014, current FSU President John Thrasher managed to overcome his non-traditional background to edge out a number of highly qualified applicants, including a former Chancellor at Louisiana State University and Colorado State University System, and the interim president of the University of Alabama at Birmingham, however, none of that crop of finalists hailed from schools that were nationally ranked in the top five.
Credit Thrasher himself for helping guide Florida State’s rise in national rankings over the last several years that attracted the current slate of top tier academic candidates from across the nation, including two experienced and high-ranking officials, one from Harvard University, ranked first out of all schools nationally, and the University of North Carolina, ranked 5th nationally among all public schools.
Of the first six candidates that interviewed on Friday, four of them hail from traditional academic backgrounds, including several with experience at top-tier research universities, one of the core competencies sought by Florida State University’s Presidential Search Advisory Committee.
One of the most highly-qualified and academically impressive candidates was Robert Blouin, Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost at the University of North Carolina. This year, UNC ranked among the top five schools in the United States by several different measures, including a Top 5 finish in the U.S. News and World Report rankings for “Top Public Schools.” Florida State ranked 19th in the same publication.
Blouin highlighted a deep understanding of students, their thinking, their educational needs, and their learning styles, how those styles are rapidly evolving, and how Florida State needs to remain forward thinking in order to meet their needs.
Though Blouin acknowledged Florida State’s impressive rise in national rankings over the past several years, he opted for a blunt assessment of the task that lay ahead for the school, pulling no punches during his interview, at times offering a more objective assessment of Florida State’s stature than some of the search committee members may have been expecting to hear. Blouin’s most pointed remarks were aimed at setting realistic expectations should he be chosen for the task, and he made it clear it would take a lot of “hard work to go from good to great,” and that it would also take talent to “climb over other great universities.”
In contrast to Blouin’s no-nonsense approach, Harvard University’s Richard McCullough brought a high-energy style to his interview. McCullough, like Blouin, can lay claim to impressive academic credentials. Currently serving as Vice Provost for Research and Professor of Materials Science and Engineering at Harvard, McCullough spent a good portion of his interview laying out his vision for how FSU can achieve its lofty academic goals. A major part of his game plan includes finding ways to significantly increase research funding for the school, which at $250 million, in his view, is only about half as much as it should be.
Other notable candidates today included Mary Ann Rankin, the former senior vice president and provost at the University of Maryland, College Park, and Michael Young, president emeritus and professor of law and professor of public policy, Texas A&M University.
A fifth candidate, Randall Hanna, brought with him a track record of success at Florida State’s Panama City campus. The case for Hanna is bolstered by his record after he took over the Panama City satellite campus and found a way to not only grow enrollment in the aftermath of Hurricane Michael, but also managed to successfully launch a number of new bachelor’s and master’s degree program offerings at the campus. Hanna’s resume also includes fundraising experience on behalf of the school’s “Raise the Torch” campaign, a skill set upon which the school’s Board of Trustees has made clear will be paramount to success.
The only true non-traditional candidate in Friday’s lineup was Sean Pittman, a Tallahassee lobbyist and Democratic campaign consultant, and notably a two-time graduate of Florida State and the school’s former student body president. Pittman’s interview began at 9am, where he highlighted his commitment to both academic and athletic excellence, and made the case that he would be committed to the school’s stated goal of becoming a Top 10 research university. The committee also heard testimony from a number of student supporters who turned out in force as part of an organized effort dubbed “Pittman for President.”
Saturday’s line up includes two more non-traditional candidates, including Florida’s current K-12 Education Commissioner, Richard Corcoran, as well as Florida State’s current Athletic Director, David Coburn. The final traditional academic candidate is Dr. Giovanni Piedimonte, who hails from Tulane University as that school’s Vice President for Research, and also serves as Professor of Pediatrics, Biochemistry & Molecular Biology at the Tulane School of Medicine. Piedimonte’s resume includes 25 years of experience managing what he describes as “complex academic and health care systems.”
Upon completion of all nine interviews, the recordings will be posted on the Presidential Search Advisory Committee’s website, here.