Education

In search of next Miami Dade College president, trustees go hunting for a ‘unicorn’

Eduardo Padrón, President of Miami Dade College speaks with the Miami Herald editorial board Thursday, Jan. 4, 2018. Padrón was joined by Ava Parker, President of Palm Beach State College, and J. David Armstrong Jr. President of Broward College.
Eduardo Padrón, President of Miami Dade College speaks with the Miami Herald editorial board Thursday, Jan. 4, 2018. Padrón was joined by Ava Parker, President of Palm Beach State College, and J. David Armstrong Jr. President of Broward College. emichot@miamiherald.com

After a moment of silent reflection, perhaps to ponder the “herculean” task ahead of them, members of Miami Dade College’s Board of Trustees mapped out their plan to hunt what they called a unicorn.

Their target, the trustees agreed, should serve as the “face of Miami” or at the very least have the ability to “understand and integrate with the state and local communities.” She or he should hold a doctorate degree, have spent 10 years as a senior administrator and at least six in academia. That person should be willing to spend the rest of their life working to maintain and enhance the foundation created over the last 25 years.

Armed not with a mythological arsenal but with a green marker, a messy Venn diagram and a professional matchmaker, the trustees gathered Tuesday morning for their first workshop meeting to find a successor to longtime college President Eduardo Padrón, the PhD economist and 2016 Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient who helped MDC become an academic giant with the largest undergraduate enrollment of any college or university in the country.

“We have a unicorn right here,” said Chairman Bernie Navarro, gesturing to Padrón. “We have to shoot for the unicorn.”

Earlier this month, Padrón announced he would be stepping down in August. Miami Dade College has hired the executive search firm Diversified Search to conduct the nationwide job hunt.

John Mestepey, the managing director of Diversified Search’s Miami office, is spearheading the search for Padrón’s successor nearly a quarter century after he was involved in the recruitment of Padrón to replace the late Robert McCabe in 1995. He presented trustees with the job listing for the position, and listened to suggested edits meant to narrow the focus of the search.

“This isn’t a job, this is a life that they’re committing to until they retire — ideally,” said board member Susan Amat. “This is a vocation. This is a calling. This is mission-driven. This is servant leadership.”

The trustees said an ideal candidate would be able to function in the private and public realms by raising money and applying for grants one day, and negotiating with the Legislature and the statewide college system.

Board Vice Chair Jose Fuentes and trustee Juan Zapata said characterizing the ideal candidate as a unicorn could set up an unrealistic expectation and limit potential candidates.

“I know he’s a unicorn,” Zapata said about Padrón. “I don’t know if looking for a unicorn would be the best way to frame this. When he was selected, I don’t think he was a unicorn. I think he developed into one.”

For his part, Padrón said he agreed with Navarro that the search committee should aspire to as high a standard as possible, while keeping students and faculty in mind.

“You don’t become chair of the medical association unless you are a doctor. You don’t become president of the Bar unless you are an attorney,” he said. “There are certain things that are essential that we must protect.”

With a little over five months until Padrón departs, the search committee will work on an aggressive deadline, although no firm time frame has been publicly released. The process will likely spill into the summer and could be made more complicated still if Gov. Ron DeSantis retracts any trustees appointed by his predecessor, newly elected U.S. Sen. Rick Scott.

The news site Florida Politics reported Sunday that DeSantis would remove four trustees from MDC’s board, part of a dramatic sacking of dozens of Scott-appointed trustees across the state. They include Amat, Benjamin Leon, Rolando Montoya and Zapata.

“A bigger concern is the time line and where we have five positions that are open right now,” Navarro said. “If no action is taken by the governor and the Legislature to appoint, we have a very serious problem because this throws us into July, August.”

Navarro said the possibility of having a new trustee on the board could throw a wrench into the process at a crucial time.

“We do not want a boat with no rudder or something that, a new trustee comes on in the last month and very possibly could say, ‘Let’s throw the whole process out because we don’t know what we’re getting and their vision might be something totally different.’”

Navarro proposed writing a resolution to Florida Senate President Bill Galvano and the governor’s office informing Tallahassee that urgency is “paramount” in this case and including the proposed time frame.

“Aside from my wife, my kids, this is the most important decision I’m going to make,” Navarro said.

Martin Vassolo is a general assignment reporter on the Miami Herald’s metro desk. He was a member of the Herald’s reporting team covering the 2018 midterm elections and Florida’s recount. Previously, he worked as a political reporting intern with the Herald and as editor-in-chief of the University of Florida’s student newspaper, The Independent Florida Alligator.

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