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WCTV interviews incoming FSU President Richard McCullough

Updated: May. 27, 2021 at 3:33 PM EDT
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TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (WCTV) - The Florida State University Board of Trustees voted unanimously Monday to approve Richard McCullough as the school’s next president. Thursday morning, WCTV morning anchor Lanetra Bennett had the opportunity to talk to McCullough about his vision for FSU.

You can read a transcribed version of the interview below.

LANETRA BENNETT: Can you explain how you feel right now? How have the past few days been since the big selection?

RICHARD MCCULLOUGH: It’s been... I’m a bit stunned, to be honest with you. It happened very quickly. I basically applied on May 12, and they made the decision on the 24th. It’s been a quick ride. I’ve been back and forth between Boston and Tallahassee multiple times in that short period. It’s been a whirlwind — but a great ride.

LB: Where were you when you got word of the selection?

RM: We were on an airplane - and so everyone knew about the selection before my wife and I did. We were landing in Charlotte, and as we were landing we turned our phones on and we started getting all sorts of text messages congratulating us. That’s how we found out.

LB: Well, what did you say? What did you do?

RM: Well... I was like ‘Oh my goodness, this is unbelievable!’ We were so excited and elated. Just so, so excited.

LB: What excites you most about this opportunity?

RM: That’s a great question. Florida State is really a university on the rise. President Thrasher has done a really amazing job at moving the university up in the rankings, for example among publics to 19, and really done a tremendous job with student success and graduation rates and so many areas of the university have improved. The foundation is really set to take Florida State to the next level and really move it towards a preeminent university. I’m a builder, and this is a tremendous opportunity. I’m very happy to be in that role.

LB: What do you plan to do as president to continue that trajectory?

RM: There’s a lot to do. Building on the quality of the faculty — there’s already great faculty here — but hiring and retaining the best faculty. Also, build the core research — we’re at $250M, should be at about $500M, great opportunity to build research. Continue to support and build student success. I’m a first-generation college graduate myself, grew up of modest means. The ability to be a part of a public university — and these are places that are engines of social change — to be a part of that and transform students’ lives is something I’m incredibly interested and excited about. Public university education transformed my life from modest means to essentially living the American Dream.

LB: What are your strategies for attracting faculty, students and research money?

RM: On the research side, I need to spend a lot of time listening and talking to the leadership, faculty and students to assess where the great opportunities are. At Harvard, I built many and multiple interdisciplinary research centers and initiatives across the university that increased our research expenditures dramatically. I would take a similar approach moving forward. I think providing the infrastructure so the faculty and students can enjoy success is really important. People will take notice as we continue to build that. People will want to be a part of it. The great thing about Florida State is that people love it there! There’s a lot of pride and a family feel about it. You don’t see that at a lot of universities, and you can’t buy that. That will naturally attract people. Maybe do a better job telling the story of how amazing the place is. Everything will take care of itself. Of course, I will be on the frontlines recruiting these top people.

LB: Why do you think that it’s important for you to be on the frontline with that as opposed to just letting others tell that story and try to get people in?

RM: Everyone will be involved. It will be a huge team effort. I put my way through college selling shoes, so I’m very good at convincing people of things. That’s one of my skills. I’m sure there are other people who are just as good as I am, but why not lead with some of your best people to convince people to come to Florida State?

LB: How will you be able to balance athletics and academics?

RM: First of all, it goes back to this FSU pride. Between the academics and athletics, people love this place. People love being a part of a winner. They’ve won so many championships in so many sports. If you look at the women’s sports itself, it’s unbelievable. From my perspective, these student-athletes are exactly the kind of people you want at the university. They’re natural-born leaders, they’re competitive. If you look at our trustees and biggest donors, a lot of them are student-athletes who have gone on to be very successful. These are the kind of people who support the university through donations. You have to pay attention to make sure everything’s on track and going well — I plan on being involved. I’m a huge sports fan, I’m already keeping up on all the details. I talked to Coach Norvell about transfers from Notre Dame and Marshall. I’m following the women’s softball team as well. I’m all in! I’ve met a number of trustees and boosters already from Florida State. There’s no way I’m in the top 30 of the biggest fans, but I will be in there somewhere as one of the big fans — I promise.

LB: Your resume shows your background in leading private universities. What do you hope to bring from that experience to FSU?

RM: From Carnegie Mellon I learned it was a university where we had limited resources. You had to look at areas where you had a disproportionate impact when you would build in a certain area. We didn’t just fund things, we would go out and raise money and find research dollars to build these research initiatives moving forward. I learned to be hungry and fight for everything you have to get. I know how to maximize impact with limited resources. At Harvard, I learned a lot about bringing people from all over the university together for a common purpose, where we use inclusion, optimism and a common purpose to build these strategic research initiatives and the impact they had on bringing research dollars and gifts was important. The difference it makes seeding those and working with people toward a common purpose — those are areas I can bring to Florida State.

LB: On the flip side, what do you think you can learn about leading a public university?

RM: I’m very passionate about this job and leading a public university. Without public universities, I don’t think you’d see the kind of social and economic mobility you see. Florida State has not only been tremendous in leading the way for first-generation students, but also first-generation students from underrepresented minorities. They have one of the highest levels of African-American with PhDs in engineering across the country. There are so many pockets of excellence there. I can’t wait to get there. Instead of being #15, I want to get us to the top two in areas like that. Public universities are special places. They’re really in many ways doing so much to make our country great and competitive, and I’m really excited to be a part of that and transform students’ lives.

LB: How do you plan to navigate the political spectrum to ensure quality education at Florida State?

RM: I believe very strongly that all of us are in this together. Everybody wants Florida State to be successful. Everybody wants the State of Florida to have one of the best higher education systems in the country. Everybody wants to create jobs and keep talent in Florida. That’s a driving force for me. I’ve done it at both universities in terms of creating start-ups and economic development projects to help create jobs and attract companies to the region. We’re all in it together on this. The way I look at it: People are people. I like to meet people and establish those hometown relationships. I don’t think of it so much as political, but we’re all on the same team. I’m one of the players on the team, and we’re in it to win. I’ve been on the phone nonstop all day and night calling people around the State of Florida to get to know them already. It’s a big job and a lot of work to do, and I’m having a great time already.

LB: One of the things that resonated with the board and you mentioned already is “we’re family.” Have you felt the family feeling already on FSU’s campus?

RM: I interviewed the first time with the search committee and it was a big auditorium and they asked me a lot of questions - got through that, the questions were challenging. It went away, I read everything I could about FSU, but you still don’t get a feel for the place at all. But when I came back and had the community engagement pieces where I met with community, faculty, staff, partners, the deans, I met the people and I was like ‘Wow, this is amazing! These people really like each other and they really get along!’ One thing that struck me as an example — deans don’t really get along at universities. They’re kind of in competition with each other. The camaraderie in that group was shocking. It was absolutely shocking. The longer and the more I met people, I thought ‘Boy, I want this job. Whoever gets this job is gonna be very lucky because this is a great place.’

LB: Is there anything else you’d like to add or say?

RM: My wife and I are thrilled to move to Tallahassee. We’re very interested in learning more about Tallahassee. We’ve basically gone from the airport to the hotel to the interviews, so we haven’t really had a chance to see much of Tallahassee. I’ve heard a lot of great things about it. It’s an amazingly fast-growing city. I hope to help with the mayor and everyone with the city to make it a better place. The university plays a huge role in that regard. We did a lot of that in Pittsburgh and it helped the city tremendously. We’re really excited. A message to the people of Tallahassee: I’m going to be working hard on their behalf.

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