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Florida College embroiled in debate over next president: white educator declines post, Black Trustee’s actions probed

A controversy over who should lead a Florida community college has erupted because a white educator rejected a job offer after two school officials told him he lacked support among Blacks.


The brouhaha at Florida Community College of Jacksonville has split the board of trustees, bruised the college’s public image and brought scrutiny from special interest groups and the governor. At least two angered trustees have called on state officials, including Florida Gov. Lawton Chiles’s legal staff, to investigate comments made to Dr. Donald Cameron.


Cameron, the president of Guilford Technical Community College in Jamestown, N.C., had been offered the presidency of the 92,000-student Florida community college. The fifty-three-year-old college administrator, who is white, says he spent three days in Jacksonville meeting with community leaders, business people and trustees after the offer. During a meeting with John Wiggins, chairman of the college’s trustees, Cameron said he was told that his selection had raised concerns in the Black community. Wiggins is Black, as are two others who attended the meeting at the Abyssinia Missionary Baptist Church — college lobbyist C. Ronald Belton and Abyssinia’s pastor, the Rev. Tom Diamond.


The back-and-forth over who will be the college’s next president illuminates longstanding infighting among the board of trustees’ members, says former president Dr. Charles Spence, who left Florida nine months ago to become chancellor of California’s Contra Costa Community College District. Calling the disagreement “destructive,” Spence said, “It’s a shame to watch this happen. What’s unusual about this is that once a board selects a candidate, usually everyone gets behind the winner to make it work.”


Trustee Howard Kelley says that comments made at the church meeting were, at best, inappropriate. An investigation is needed to determine if the selection process was tainted, he said.


Wiggins and two other board members backed Charles A. Green, who is Black and the former chancellor of the Houston Community College District, to be the new president in Jacksonville. But a majority of board members, including Kelley, supported Cameron. At the church meeting, Wiggins told Cameron that the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) also had written a letter opposing his selection.


Florida NAACP President Leon Russell has said the group indeed has some questions as to whether Cameron was the best candidate, but he insists no letter was sent. Russell acknowledged, however, that NAACP members believe the college’s trustees “did not pick the best qualified candidate.”


Cameron has confirmed the substance of the meeting, telling the Florida Times-Union that he would not rule out the discussion as a factor in his decision to turn down the Jacksonville job. But, in an interview with Black Issues, he said his decision hinged more on the hundreds of phone calls and letters from Jamestown area supporters asking him to stay put.


“My reason for staying is the support I have here,” he said. “My family has lived in this area since 1750. My roots are here. My family and I decided this is where we want to stay.” Just how the race question emerged as a major factor seems to befuddle even those involved in the debate. The college has not experienced racial tensions in the past. Although the school has never had a minority president, half of the sixteen Original candidates for the job were Black. Two of the three finalists also were Black. Seventy-two percent of the students at the college are white. Another 18 percent are Black and the remaining 10 percent are a mix of other minorities, says college spokesman Mike Corby.


Wiggins refuses to even discuss the matter, saying, “I’m not going to talk about controversies. I don’t want to rehash all that. I’m trying to stay on the high road here.” Meanwhile, other allegations have surfaced that Wiggins tried to manipulate the process and tilt favor toward a third finalist, Dennis Gallon, president of the school’s Kent campus. Kelley charges that Wiggins directed a senior staff member to solicit letters of support for Gallon from Jacksonville-area legislators. Gallon later withdrew from the running.


“This strikes at the very heart of the credibility of the chairman and his ability to remain impartial during the selection process,” Kelley says. “We hadn’t even interviewed anybody yet.” Kelley also said the church meeting “seems somewhat inappropriate–that part of the discussion focused on whether he would be accepted by the African-American community.


“I don’t know whether the African-American community knew Dr. Cameron or had a chance to evaluate him,” he added. “It seems Dr. Cameron has become caught in the middle.” Trustee Harry Halley, who also backed Cameron, said fallout from the controversy “has been very divisive. I hope the investigation will help to clear the air. It is important for us to put this behind us and go forward.”


But it remains unclear whether trustees will offer the job to Green (the only finalist remaining), return to the original pool of sixteen candidates, or start over altogether. Wiggins declined to pinpoint which of those options he prefers. Kelley said a decision should wait until after the investigation is complete.


“Dr. Green is a fine candidate,” said Kelley. “But I do not want to select a candidate by default. He remains a worthy candidate to be considered in a field of other candidates.”


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