DeSantis ally favored to run state university, has no experience in higher education

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

Republican State Rep. Fred Hawkins, a close ally of Gov. Ron DeSantis, was chosen by the South Florida State College District Board of Trustees on Wednesday morning — two days after Hawkins submitted his candidacy and five days after that 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 due to be interviewed on May 31. But he is already claiming the job.

“Pages turn and new chapters begin. I look forward to becoming the next president of South Florida State College,” Hawkins tweeted Wednesday night.

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

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

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

His case 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 as Osceola County Commissioner due to the charges.

The Times/Herald reached out to Hawkins through text messages and calls seeking comment on her selection and the application process. He had not answered Thursday afternoon.

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

The first signs emerged at a board meeting on April 17, when trustees were discussing the selection of one of three finalists for college president. By the end of the meeting, all of the nominees had withdrawn and one of the directors, Joe Wright, “expressed his concerns about the suitability of the board and the issues that arose,” according to a copy of the draft minutes of the workshop.

The three finalists – Amy Bosley, John M. Davis and Vicky Wood – had doctorates and administrative experience at community colleges. Bosley is vice president of 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, Va., 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 require “a combination of credentials and experience sufficient to ensure the respect and trust of a wide range of college constituents,” said board chairman Terry Atchley, adding that “the 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’s “applying to the University of Florida’s online master’s program.” A UF spokesperson did not immediately say if he had already signed up for classes.

After the May 3 meeting, administrator Louis Kirschner told a Tampa Bay Times reporter that he thought the three finalists who withdrew were “pretty good,” but that he saw no problem with the reps. of the state involved in the selection process. Kirschner has served on the council since 1999 and is chairman of the DeSoto County Republican Executive Committee.

“You have to understand that we are political candidates and they were all Democrats,” Kirschner said of the three finalists. “The governor does not appoint all Republican directors and does not expect us to select a Democrat.”

Political orientation may not have mattered 10 years ago, Kirschner said. But he said he didn’t trust a leftist president not to introduce “woke” ideology into his school leadership. Candidates must be dedicated not only to education, but also to the character and integrity of the school, he said.

Asked about the governor’s involvement in the selection process, DeSantis press secretary Bryan Griffin said the decision is up to the board, “but of course we support the selection of a qualified person. who is committed to truth and academics and not to fashionable ideology”. diaries. »

“The withdrawals did not indicate any interference from the governor, and that’s really all we know,” college spokeswoman Melissa Kuehnle told The Times/Herald on Wednesday when asked about the previous three finalists.

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

Griffin did not respond Wednesday and Thursday when asked if the governor was backing Hawkins as a finalist.

Hawkins has no teaching experience, but he has served as President and CEO of the Osceola Education Foundation since 2016. In this role, he oversees scholarship programs, the operation of three charter schools, the fundraising and community relations, according to Hawkins’ resume. and application.

At a time when DeSantis is aggressively trying to weed out diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives at higher education institutions, it’s worth noting that Hawkins’ foundation highlights 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, sex and/or gender identity, age, sexuality, ability, religion, national origin and any other identity,” the statement read.

Hawkins, longtime commissioner of Osceola County, wrote in his candidacy for president of the state university that he was leaving his position at the foundation to “continue to use my knowledge of education in another capacity. “.

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

Hawkins used his “special assistant” badge – an honorary title – and threatened to arrest a security guard who tried to stop him from entering the room, according to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. He had no powers of arrest and no one from the sheriff’s office asked him to take action as a special deputy in the homeowners’ association election, law enforcement said. .

Hawkins entered a plea deal in the case and completed a diversion program, according to court records.

Tampa Bay Times reporter Ian Hodgson contributed to this report.

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