The announcement of Karen Holbrook’s decision sucked the air out of the Florida Gulf Coast University ballroom.
FGCU student Jameson Yingling stormed out in disappointment. He ripped off his suit jacket and walked off in disbelief. He couldn’t believe one of the leading candidates to replace Bill Merwin as FGCU president pulled out of the process at the last minute.
In an empty hallway of the student union, Yingling slumped into a chair and buried his hands in his face. He’d later be face-to-face with Holbrook, and first to learn of her change of plans.
“I feel like we lost a chance to have a great leader,” said Yingling, who spent the past week, nearly 12 hours a day, serving on the presidential search committee that chose Holbrook as one of the final three candidates.
Before the Board of Trustees could vote Saturday, the former president of The Ohio State University decided she didn’t have the support of the school’s biggest donors.
During the public comments portion of the meeting, Ben Hill Griffin asked the board to continue the search.
Griffin, a university founder who donated the land where FGCU sits and millions of dollars to help the university grow, said all three candidates — Holbrook, Greg Weisenstein and Wilson Bradshaw, who was eventually named president — were qualified to be president.
But Griffin didn’t think any of them were a perfect “fit” for FGCU.
With that the drama began.
Jan Greenwood, whose firm conducted the search, entered the room and whispered in FGCU spokesman Susan Evans’ ear. Greenwood had been in conversations with Holbrook, tucked away in a room not far from the ballroom. Then Evans whispered into board chairman Scott Lutgert’s ear.
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Greenwood left the room and returned with a note. Evans handed the note, stating that Holbrook had withdrawn her consideration for the position, to Lutgert, who made the announcement to the 100 in attendance.
With the bombshell, the room started to buzz.
Back in the hallway, Holbrook, ready to head back to Longboat Key with her husband, Jim, bumped into Yingling. The two embraced and exchanged pleasantries. And then Yingling asked, “Why?”
Seeing the distraught and frustrated student, Holbrook explained.
“If you don’t feel you have the strong support of the people behind the university, if you don’t have that, when you put so much of your emotion and yourself into a position, it’s a difficult position,” Holbrook told Yingling.
With that, Holbrook wished Yingling the best, gave him her card and headed north. She told the Daily News she’d rather talk to Lutgert before commenting further.
When Griffin heard he might have caused Holbrook’s sudden decision, he laughed.
“Well if you can’t stand the heat, you better get out of the kitchen. That’s all I know,” Griffin said. “I’m surprised that she’s that sensitive.
“I said we should continue the search, not continue eliminations of those who had already been selected but let’s add to that and then see what consideration they hold. I did not recommend any particular person. If she has that degree of sensitivity, I think she made the right decision.”
On Friday night, at an FGCU Foundation reception, Griffin grilled Holbrook about her ability to lead with a smaller staff than she had at Ohio State. The Foundation, comprised of the movers and shakers of the community, also had concerns about the 64-year-old Holbrook’s willingness to stay at the university any length of time and live in the community.
The concerns over Holbrook’s commitment continued in Saturday morning’s interview with the Board of Trustees. Members asked her about living in the community and how long she imagined herself as president. She answered, “yes” to the first question and five to eight years to the second question.
Griffin admitted the line of questioning for Holbrook had a more adversarial tone than for the other two candidates.
“There were some hard questions,” Griffin said. “She was one of the highest-experienced of the others so I thought it was only natural that they’d be asking a different level of questions.”
And in Griffin’s mind, the fact that Holbrook didn’t stick it out through the entire process shows she wasn’t the right fit.
“I never thought a person of that esteemed character would withdraw in the middle of the final considerations,” Griffin said.
Just before the announcement, board member Brian Cobb had actually thrown out an endorsement for Holbrook to be the next president.
He’d later admit to being shocked by the news.
“I’m absolutely stunned,’’ Cobb said.
He wasn’t the only one that shared that sentiment at FGCU on Saturday.