June 07, 2021
Florida State University (FSU) has removed Richard Corcoran from its shortlist of candidates nominated to be the university’s next president. According to Breitbart, the search committee canceled Corcoran in response to a letter it received from the university’s accreditor, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC).
The National Association of Scholars (NAS), where I serve as president, has had no prior involvement in this matter and has not endorsed any candidate for FSU’s presidency. In response to the report on Breitbart, we attempted to confirm the facts. The president of SACSCOC, Belle Wheelan, did indeed write to the Florida Board of Governors chairman Sydney Kitson on May 13, expressing concerns about the search, and especially warning that an unnamed candidate had a potential conflict of interest. This was a thinly veiled reference to Corcoran, who serves on the Florida Board of Governors.
Conflicts of interest of this sort are common and are usually handled by the member recusing himself or stepping aside from his position. Disqualifying a candidate on this basis is unusual. It’s even more unusual for a regional accreditor to intervene in a presidential search.
The Corcoran affair, however, is not the first time that SACSCOC has done so. In April, it inserted itself into considerations regarding former Georgia governor Sonny Perdue’s candidacy to head that state’s higher education system. In that case, Wheelan also sent a letter to the board of regents. Wheelan did so, according to the Associated Press, “after reading news coverage suggesting that regents were being politically pressured to name Perdue to head the system.” She claimed her authority to act this way comes from an accrediting standard that says educational leaders must have “appropriate experience and qualifications.”
We would agree with that provision but not with Wheelan’s appropriation of it as a license to undermine the candidacies of individuals with whom she personally finds fault. Corcoran and Perdue are known political actors, as are a great many other leaders in higher education. Appointments at the highest levels of college and university administration inevitably warrant political considerations, and those considerations are entirely appropriate. Their existence, however, does not nullify a candidate’s other qualifications. It would be a difficult argument to make that either Corcoran or Perdue is unqualified or lacks “appropriate experience.” Both have long records of important public service, and both are deeply conversant with issues in higher education.