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McCullough makes first impression, sees big picture for FSU’s future

The resume made one impression. If Florida State’s presidential search committee was looking for anything in a candidate, the word that came up often was “fit.” Carnegie Mellon and Harvard gave the impression that Dr. Richard McCullough may not relate well to FSU.

When McCullough sat down for the interview, the responses helped build a relationship and showed a connection. 

“I remember looking at one of the committee members and said, ‘Wow, I really liked him, I did not think he was going to be so down to Earth,’ ” said FSU professor and faculty athletics representative Dr. Pam Perrewe, a member of the presidential search committee. “My first impression was that he’s very bright, very down to earth, and I liked him from the very beginning.”

In observing McCullough’s interviews, it’s easy to see why his skill set and personality are relatable at a top-25 public school like FSU despite spending nearly a decade at an Ivy League school as well as 20 years at Carnegie Mellon (plus doctoral work at Johns Hopkins and post-doctoral fellowship at Columbia). McCullough impressed upon the search committee and Board of Trustees members how his past experience in fundraising, research, science and entrepreneurship could enhance FSU.

“His enthusiasm for moving into this position was just so very evident,” FSU board of trustees member Jim Henderson said. “I like his face, his expression and elevation of his voice there. He’s just very passionate.”

McCullough is Harvard’s Vice Provost for Research and is a professor of Materials Science and Engineering. He previously held the title of VP for Research at Carnegie Mellon as well as the Dean of the Mellon College of Science as well as professor and head of the Chemistry department. He has also founded two companies: Plextronics Inc and Liquid X Printed Metals.

There is no formal start day for McCullough, although it could be July 1 (the start of FSU’s fiscal year). He will need to be confirmed by Florida’s Board of Governors, which will meet on June 23. President John Thrasher will remain in his position until McCullough is confirmed, and it’s conceivable he could remain involved as an advisor or consultant to help bridge in the transition.

In his years at Harvard, McCullough’s job didn’t involve crossover with athletics. There is bound to be a learning curve, as many presidents and chancellors have in dealing with athletics. Perrewe recalled a conversation she had with Dr. Eric Barron, FSU’s president from 2010-14, where she asked what was the most surprising aspect of being president. He quickly responded, “The amount of time I spend on athletics.” 

Perrewe said she has already relayed that message to McCullough. He is clearly a sports fan, commenting that he has been reading up on FSU football and recruiting, watched the men’s basketball team during the run to the Sweet 16 while also mentioning a few of the Olympic sports teams.

“I would bring leadership to this like I would bring leadership to anything else,” McCullough said. “Working with the athletic director like you would work with the deans. I think you have to be involved, talking with the coaches like department heads. Really just making sure you’re following the grades of the students and making sure you know what programs are going on. Being involved in recruiting.”

He also praised student-athletes as “natural born leaders” as well as people who become successful leaders. They also, he thinks, eventually become donors to the school.

Perrewe also mentioned that McCullough contacted her recently, saying he would like to set up a meeting to discuss big-picture athletics issues with incoming faculty athletics representative Mike Brady (a former FSU pitcher and professor at the business school) as well as Perrewe. McCullough has met a variety of people on campus, including football coach Mike Norvell.

“This is a great time for Florida State University and the selection of Dr. McCullough as our new president,” Norvell said. “We have had tremendous leadership from President Thrasher, and he has helped FSU CLIMB to an incredible place. I’m excited to partner up with President-Elect McCullough and help push Florida State University to new heights together. He has such an impressive background with experiences of elite-level academic success, fundraising and student development. The future is bright under his guidance. The CLIMB continues in Tallahassee, and GO NOLES!”

Seminole Boosters Inc. CEO Michael Alford said he found McCullough to be engaging but also had done his homework on the school, Tallahassee and people whom he met. Alford and Norvell were able to sit down with McCullough on a visit to campus.

“He’s going to fit in unbelievably with the students,” Alford said. “That’s his focus, which is all of our focus, is to make sure that we’re paying attention and doing the right things for their growth and put processes in place to make sure they’re growing and achieving their goal while they’re here.”

As part of the interview process, the search committee members and Board of Trustees each asked the candidates how to balance “the competing interest in advancing academic excellence and fostering new research against the needs of a thriving athletic program.” McCullough and Perrewe also discussed the question later in a one-on-one discussion, and McCullough said, “I think they help each other.” Perrewe said in her experience at FSU this has been the case.

“When we won the national championship back in 1993, our applications to get into Florida State skyrocketed,” Perrewe said. “And the more applications you get, the more you can pick and choose the very top academic students. Our scholarship got better because athletics was better, but also academics helps athletics.”

Aside from learning about the big-picture issues with athletics, McCullough’s priorities will be focused on those around the entire campus. Fundraising through donors and lobbying in the legislature are the obvious answers. But McCullough will also put his stamp on the university and its focus through who he hires to fill various leadership roles within the president’s cabinet (this could also include athletics director). 

Thrasher and FSU’s cabinet, like provost Sally McRorie, and Gary Ostrander, who had been FSU’s VP for Research and has now shifted back to a faculty position, have helped guide the university into the top 20 among national public universities in the latest U.S. News & World Report rankings. Tom Jennings, who helped lead FSU’s $1 billion fundraising campaign, stepped down as VP for University Advancement and president of the FSU Foundation in August 2020. McCullough has significant jobs to fill, ones who will help him shape the future of the college. But there’s no doubt, based on the questions by the BOT and search committee, the goal is to make a push into the top 15 and eventually the top 10. 

Perrewe envisions FSU needing to expand the endowments and research dollars to get into the Association of American Universities (AAU), a prestigious group that seeks to “transform lives through education, research, and innovation.” To do so, FSU’s endowment would likely need to double to about $500 million, in Perrewe’s view. One area where she sees to do that is to write more grants and gain funding through the National Institute of Health. In Henderson’s view, as well as that of others, the goals are to build on the achievements of Thrasher and FSU’s leadership but also expand the efforts into research, science and medicine.

“Lose no ground in the wonderful areas we’re improving,” Henderson said. “Then secondly how does that skill set really helped us get to the next level. I think that Dr. McCullough was maybe very well equipped, best equipped in terms of looking at our potential to become an AAU university. It is something of a club. I think he understands some of the research enrichments that we need to look to properly elevate to be in that club. 

“FSU deserves to be there, if you look at our students, if you look at our faculty, our ranking. I think maybe only William and Mary is the only other top 20 that’s not in the AAU. So we belong there. And so I think he understands how to get us in that club and take FSU to that next level.”