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Conflict Of Interest Questions Raised In FSU President Search

Florida Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran speaks at a podium.
JOE RAEDLE GETTY IMAGES
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GETTY IMAGES/The Miami Herald
Florida Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran speaks during an October press conference at Bayview Elementary School in Fort Lauderdale where he and Gov. Ron DeSantis, left, announced a plan to raise the minimum starting salary for teachers.

TALLAHASSEE --- A key higher-education accrediting organization is raising questions about a potential conflict of interest involving state Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran as he seeks to become president of Florida State University.

Corcoran is a member of the state university system’s Board of Governors, which ultimately will have to approve the candidate selected by FSU’s Board of Trustees to succeed retiring President John Thrasher.

Belle Wheelan, president of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges, sent a letter Thursday to Board of Governors Chairman Syd Kitson outlining her concerns about the potential conflict of interest with Corcoran.

“I'm concerned that if he doesn't step down from his position on the Board while he is a candidate for the position, since it is the Board of Governors that will be hiring the President, the SACSCOC Board of Trustees will find the institution out of compliance” with the accrediting body’s rules, Wheelan wrote.

Corcoran’s potential conflict of interest was brought up as a concern during a meeting Tuesday in which the university’s Presidential Search Advisory Committee chose nine candidates to be interviewed for the job. Those interviews will start Friday, with Corcoran scheduled to be interviewed Saturday.

“These conflicts can lead to a loss of accreditation” for the university, search committee member Pam Perrewe, an FSU professor, said during Tuesday’s meeting.

Ed Burr, chairman of the university's Board of Trustees, said during the meeting that he didn’t know where the accrediting body would fall on the issue.

“There’s no conflict, we're certain, from a law perspective, or an FSU policy perspective. But we don’t know as we sit here right now if there’s a conflict from SACS. So, I would like to give comfort that this is not going to be ignored,” Burr told the committee.

Wheelan’s letter to Kitson confirmed that the school’s accreditation could be on the line should Corcoran get the job without first stepping down from the Board of Governors. She warned that loss of accreditation could jeopardize the university receiving federal money and lead to a possible loss in enrollment and donations.

“While it is often especially difficult for members of a governing board who are appointed by the Governor or legislative body to remain independent in their work, it is imperative that they do, or they place the accreditation of the institution(s) they govern in jeopardy,” Wheelan wrote.

Wheelan also pointed to another standard held by her organization related to qualifications for leaders in higher education, citing a story in the Tallahassee Democrat newspaper.

“Again, the article seems to suggest that some of the candidates might not possess the appropriate experience or qualifications to lead the institution,” Wheelan wrote.

Corcoran, a lawyer, is a former state House speaker who was appointed by Gov. Ron DeSantis to serve as education commissioner. The state Constitution requires the education commissioner to have a seat on the university system’s Board of Governors.