LAKELAND — Applicants came from such varied backgrounds as community colleges, the private sector and even a DeVry campus, but in the end, Florida Polytechnic University stuck with a pair of big tech research guns in narrowing its search for its inaugural president.
Poly’s trustees on Tuesday named Randy Avent, associate vice president for research and associate provost at North Carolina State University, and Robert McGrath, director of the Georgia Tech Research Institute, as candidates for the top job.
The pair will visit Lakeland this weekend. After a community meet-and-greet on Sunday, formal interviews with the Poly search committee will take place Monday.
Absent from the list of finalists was Ghazi Darkazalli, the current provost at Florida Polytechnic and the school’s top academic official. Trustee Frank Martin attempted to get Darkazalli added to the short list, but the panel heeded headhunter Bill Funk’s advice that adding an internal candidate to the list could have a “chilling effect” on the external candidates.
Funk, head of the Dallas-based R. William Funk & Associates search firm, submitted 12 names from the full list of 43 applicants and nominees who best met criteria outlined by Poly’s credentials committee. That list was whittled to Avent and McGrath at a Tuesday meeting of the search committee, which is made up of the university’s full Board of Trustees, the chair of the school’s foundation and a representative from the state university system Board of Governors.
“We were extremely impressed by the pool of candidates for this important position,” committee member Don Wilson said in a statement. “As a brand new state university, dedicated wholly to hands-on, high-tech STEM education, Florida Polytechnic is unique in the world of higher ed. It requires a leader with entrepreneurial vision, proven leadership ability and a commitment to continuously riding the cutting edge of technology. I feel confident we’ll find that combination of attributes among our finalists.”
Avent is a professor of computer science at N.C. State with a doctorate in biomedical math and engineering from the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. He has served as chief scientist in the Department of Defense’s Office of Basic Research, where he oversaw science programs and developed strategic plans for science and technology investments.
He was also Associate Chief Technology Officer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Lincoln Laboratory. He has conducted research in areas including computer science, life sciences and electrical engineering, though the majority of his work has been in defense.
On Avent’s watch last fall, N.C. State and the National Security Agency announced the two institutions would collaborate to establish a $61 million Laboratory for Analytic Sciences at the university.
McGrath received a doctorate in nuclear science and engineering from the University of Michigan. He went to the Georgia Institute of Technology after serving at the Battelle Memorial Institute, where he was a consultant on national laboratory/university partnerships, STEM education, and Race to the Top initiatives.
He was senior vice president for research at Ohio State University and associate vice president for research and director of strategic and interdisciplinary initiatives at Penn State.
Both candidates declined to be interviewed by a reporter on Tuesday.
Trustee Wilson, who originally pitched Avent and McGrath as finalists, lauded the work of Darkazalli and the Poly staff who led the fledgling school through its infancy, but called for more experienced leadership.
“We’ve come a long way, and thanks to everyone’s hard work, we now have people applying for this job who are currently senior administrators and leaders of polytechnic universities and research organizations that we hope to be one day,” he said at Tuesday’s meeting. “It’s just a wonderful opportunity for us, and because of that, I think we should limit those interviews to people who are in those types of positions.”
Wilson said the two finalists “really stand out” in the candidate pool.
Florida Polytechnic will open in August with an inaugural class of about 500 students, 31 full-time faculty members and 12 part-time faculty. Its signature Innovation, Science and Technology building is nearing completion at Interstate 4 and the eastern Polk Parkway.