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With President Kenneth Walker on paid leave pending an investigation into whether he can be terminated with cause, Edison State College trustees are hopeful faculty and students will rally behind the person leading the college in his place during the search for the Edison's next president.
Charlotte Campus President Patricia Land, who has previously served as district president in Walker's absence, stepped into Walker's role Wednesday, though she was not on campus due to a personal matter. Land will oversee the day-to-day operations of the college as a whole while still serving as leader of the Charlotte campus.
"It's really important now that we all pull in the same direction as hard as we can for the next six months," Trustee Chris Vernon said Tuesday after trustees voted 7-1 to place the embattled Walker on leave with pay.
In the meantime, trustees are preparing to start the search for an interim president and, ultimately, the college's next president, who they want in place in advance of fall semester 2012.
There's a feeling among a majority of the trustees that their decision, cheered by faculty and students who had long called for Walker's removal, will send a positive signal to Edison's accrediting body — which gave the school 14 areas of needed improvements earlier this month.
A spokeswoman for the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, or SACS, which accredits Edison, said Wednesday it's too early to say if that feeling is warranted.
"Those kind of personnel actions kind of spin in their own orbit and reaccreditation in its own orbit," SACS spokeswoman Pamela Cravey said. "In and of itself, firing a president is not an accreditation issue."
The reaccreditation process continues through June, Cravey said, making it difficult to predict whether Walker's suspension will affect Edison's status. She could not recall offhand a similar case in which a school had ousted its president during the process.
"It may send a strong message — we certainly heard about it," Cravey said. "Other than that, everything's too early to say."
Edison has been under scrutiny following months of controversy, including a course-swapping scandal, underqualified professors in classrooms and miscommunication about the school's unaccredited nursing program. At the center of the controversy was Walker, who many students and faculty held as responsible.
The longtime president proposed Tuesday to leave his position in June 2012 — one year in advance of the date outlined in his contract — and to take a voluntary pay cut of $70,000. That offer was rejected by trustees, who instead voted to accept a five-point plan that includes having Land serve as acting president until an interim president is found.
Land, who has led Charlotte campus since 2002 and has 30 years of experience in higher education, was the board's first pick for the position.
"She has a good understanding of the inner workings of the college and I think that she has good leadership skills," Vernon said.
Faculty Union President Ellie Bunting called Land the "logical choice" and said faculty are happy with her placement as acting president.
"We all think that's great," she said. "At least somebody is in charge."
Land was unavailable for comment Wednesday but plans to address the media Friday. She is taking on the duties of district president without additional compensation, Trustee Pamela Seay said.
It's unknown whether Land will relocate to the Lee County campus, Edison spokesman Eric McKinney said. Her time as acting president is expected to span six to eight weeks as trustees search for an interim president who can lead the school through the accreditation process.
They'd also look to the interim president to help clean up some of the issues faced by the school.
They are turning to Randy Hanna, chancellor of the Division of Florida Colleges, for assistance in finding that person. Without mentioning names, Hanna said Wednesday he knows of a number of people who be good candidates. He plans to attend a future board meeting and lay out options the board can pursue to locate an interim president, including using a consultant.
Vernon said his preference would be to look outside of the college for candidates. An ideal candidate, Seay said, would be a former president who has experience with the accreditation process.
"If it were up to me alone, the kind of person I'd be looking for is a retired president of a community college or a state college who has gone through accreditation issues before successfully, who is not interested in being president but who has the skills necessary to guide us through this process right now," she said.
Hanna is confident the board will find a suitable candidate within the 60 day time period they've outlined, even with the challenges at Edison.
"There are people who have a calling for education," he said, "and there are clearly people who have stepped into situations like you have at Edison and been successful."