Report: After DeSantis intervened, a state college scrapped its search for a new president and will hand the job to a politician
Something is rotten in Florida's Heartland.
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On April 14, just three days before trustees at a small state college in a rural corner of Florida were set to pick the school’s next president, Gov. Ron DeSantis suddenly intervened.
An outside search firm and a 25-member search committee had spent months combing through more than 60 applicants to be the next president of South Florida State College, a respected community college serving around 6,000 students amid the citrus groves, cattle pastures and phosphate mines of a region known as Florida’s “Heartland.” They had narrowed the field down to three finalists — all high-ranking college administrators — each of whom had already been in for campus visits and job interviews.
But then, “the governor’s office contacted the college on the Friday before the board meeting and put the process to a stop,” according to an April 28 report in The Herald-Advocate, a weekly newspaper in the region.
Within days, all three finalists abruptly withdrew their applications without any explanation. The South Florida State College’s Board of Trustees — which is controlled by DeSantis political appointees — announced it that would conduct another abbreviated search itself, rather than using an outside recruiting firm or separate search committee. And the trustees decided to throw the job open to candidates who lacked an advanced education, after initially insisting that any potential applicant have a doctoral or other terminal degree.
That second search — which lasted just seven days — concluded this week, when college trustees named a single finalist who is now all-but-guaranteed to become school’s next president: Fred Hawkins, a Republican state representative from the Orlando area.
Hawkins, 45, does not have an advanced degree or any experience as a college administrator. What he does have is loyalty to DeSantis — so much so that Hawkins recently stood by DeSantis’ side during a bizarre press conference at Walt Disney World, grinning as the governor threatened to build a state prison at Florida’s most important tourist attraction.
It’s still not clear who reached out to the college on the governor’s behalf, to whom they spoke, or what they specifically ordered the school to do. But it is crystal clear that DeSantis’ decision to intervene had an immediate impact.
Days after DeSantis’ outreach, the college trustees held a last-minute workshop to discuss the status of their presidential search. Minutes from that meeting show that the DeSantis-appointed board chair informed the other trustees that all three finalists had withdrawn from consideration — even though emails obtained by The Herald-Advocate show that not all of them had yet done so.
In addition, another trustee appears to have been upset by outside interference in the selection process. That trustee — Joe Wright, a dairy farmer who has served on the South Florida State College Board since 2011 — “expressed his concern about serving on the board and some intervening issues that occurred,” according to the meeting minutes. (Wright declined to comment further when later contacted by a local reporter.)
What’s more, The Herald-Advocate also reported that DeSantis had specifically “noted displeasure over the finalists.” And another college trustee explicitly cited the political affiliations of those finalists during an interview with the Tampa Bay Times and Miami Herald.
“You have to understand that we are political appointees, and they were all Democrats,” Trustee Louis Kirschner, a chiropractor and a local Republican Party leader, told the Times/Herald. “The governor doesn’t appoint all Republican trustees and expect us to select a Democrat.”
Still, most of those involved are refusing to answer detailed questions about what exactly went down in Florida’s Heartland, a forgotten part of the state that doesn’t usually face much outside scrutiny. That includes Hawkins, who did not respond to calls and texts from the Times/Herald, and the Governor’s Office, which refused to answer whether DeSantis supported Hawkins’ selection.
Other agencies have also been slow to fulfill public-records requests submitted by The Herald-Advocate.
But the process isn’t done: Trustees are scheduled to interview Hawkins on May 31 and vote on whether to hire him on June 7, according to The Herald-Advocate.
In the meantime, the 123-year-old community newspaper is continuing to dig into this story.
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Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the length of the second presidential search. That search lasted just seven days (not 10).