The Florida Polytechnic University Board of Trustees narrowly selects Devin Stephenson as its next president

Florida Poly Devin Stephenson
Devin Stephenson was chosen to become the second president of Florida Polytechnic University. Photo provided by FL Poly.

By Ryan Dailey 16 hrs ago ©2024 The News Service of Florida

TALLAHASSEE — The Florida Polytechnic University Board of Trustees on Monday chose Devin Stephenson to become the school’s second president, succeeding Randy Avent who is slated to step down in July.

Stephenson, who is president of Northwest Florida State College in Niceville, was selected in a 7-6 vote amid a debate among trustees about whether Florida Poly’s next president should have a background in science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM as it is commonly known.

Avent has led the Lakeland university since it opened to students in 2014. He is expected to return to the Florida Poly faculty after a sabbatical.

Trustees who supported Stephenson’s selection pointed to reasons such as his experience in education leadership, ability to raise money and the potential to secure resources for the school through connections in the Legislature.

Stephenson has been president of Northwest Florida State College since 2017. He previously worked as president of Big Sandy Community and Technical College in Prestonsburg, Ky.

Cliff Otto, chairman of the Florida Poly trustees, said he was impressed by Stephenson’s record of leadership in higher education and said Stephenson would be good for the university.

“He has served in those roles by demonstrating some things that are going to be equally important to Florida Poly. He’s shown that he’s committed to growth. He has demonstrated and told us that he is a very successful fundraiser. And he is known to be effective in Tallahassee, which is important as we try and continue to drive investment in the university,” Otto said.

A biography of Stephenson on the Northwest Florida State College website said he has “extensive experience in community college executive administration having served in President/CEO positions in Alabama, Missouri and Kentucky.”

Stephenson holds an associate in science degree from Walker Junior College, a bachelor’s degree in business administration from Birmingham-Southern College and master’s and doctorate degrees in higher-education administration from the University of Alabama, the biography said.

Stephenson spoke of his leadership style on The News Service of Florida’s “Deeper Dive with Dara Kam” podcast in January.

“I’ve tried to surround myself with a diverse cabinet of leaders, of all generations, because I don’t want ‘yes people.’ I want people that will challenge my thinking as a baby boomer, and to help me realize, what is the best solution? And we do it all together,” Stephenson said.

Members of the trustees board who voted against Stephenson’s selection Monday cited his lack of experience leading a university, versus colleges, and his lack of a STEM background.

Trustee Mark Bostick criticized the selection, drawing a comparison to how prominent STEM-oriented schools such as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Georgia Tech would choose leaders.

“If we’re trying to set expectations for Florida Poly, MIT, Georgia Tech are not going to hire a community college president who has no STEM background. I mean, we’re going to be the laughingstock of the country as far as trying to have a national presence. And I just think this is a disaster,” Bostick said before the final vote was taken.

Bostick’s comment touched off a debate among the trustees, with other members defending the choice of Stephenson.

“We have a record in Florida of college presidents who have had great success not necessarily having an education background, or even a background in the particular expertise of that university,” said trustee Jesse Panuccio, who was appointed to the board by Gov. Ron DeSantis last year.

The trustees this month interviewed Stephenson and four other finalists. Keith Moo-Young, vice provost and dean of undergraduate education at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y., got support from several of the trustees who did not support Stephenson’s selection.

Other finalists were David Norton, vice president for research at the University of Florida; Daniel O’Sullivan, vice provost and chemistry professor at the U.S. Naval Academy; and Bjong Wolf Yeigh, an engineering professor and former chancellor for the University of Washington Bothell.

Stephenson’s selection will need approval from the state university system’s Board of Trustees. In the meantime, Florida Poly will begin negotiating a contract with Stephenson. The contract will come before the university’s trustees for consideration during a meeting on April 25.

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