Flagler College is a sprawling 49-acre private liberal arts school in the heart of downtown St. Augustine. The Ponce de Leon, a swank Spanish Renaissance-style luxury hotel built in the late 19th century, remains its crowning centerpiece.

Two years after its 1968 founding as an all-girls’ college, the school reorganized as a coed liberal arts college. Since then, Flagler College has had two presidents: William L. Proctor, who served as president from 1971-2001, and William T. Abare Jr., who has served as president from Proctor’s retirement to present day.

In April, Abare announced he would retire in June 2017. This summer, the school began a nationwide search for a replacement, hiring AGB Search, a Washington, D.C.-based firm that specializes in finding candidates to fill positions in higher education.

The position generated intense interest, which is unsurprising considering Flagler’s idyllic campus, prime location, consistently high rankings from U.S. News & World Report and The Princeton Review, and the likely compensation. In 2014, The Chronicle in Higher Education reported that Abare’s annual compensation of nearly a half-million dollars, $487,908, made him the highest-paid president in his peer group. The next-highest paid president of a similar institution made $87,000 less, according to the report. The Chronicle also noted that Proctor, who was named chancellor of the school upon retiring as president, earns $172,685, making him the second-highest paid of all school employees.

Though the application process technically closed on Oct. 11, for weeks, word around campus has been that the school had already selected a local insider to serve as its next president: St. Johns County Superintendent of Schools Joseph Joyner, who announced his retirement from that county position on April 6, just 12 days before Abare’s retirement was announced.

Speaking on condition of anonymity, some Flagler insiders privately question whether Joyner will be able to meet the school’s fundraising goals. According to the job posting on AGB’s website, Flagler relies on a combination of fundraising, tuition and income from its endowment of $48 million and capital reserves of more than $30 million. “[A]nnual fundraising for the college provides a strong supplement to scholarships, capital projects, and operating expenses,” the posting states. Last year, fundraising accounted for more than $6 million of Flagler’s budget. This enables the school to keep tuition relatively low. According to the job posting, Flagler’s 2,500 students pay $16,830 each for tuition, well below the national average. U.S. News & World Report states that for 2016-’17, the average tuition and fees at private colleges is twice that: $33,635.

Other Flagler employees wonder whether naming another older white man (Joyner is in his 60s), whom one faculty member, speaking on condition of anonymity, referred to disparagingly as a “good ol’ boy,” will improve diversity at Flagler, one of the least diverse colleges in the nation. Joyner did not respond to numerous requests for comment.

The U.S. News & World Report, which rates a college’s diversity on a 0.0-1.0 scale (1.0 being the most diverse and 0.0 being least diverse), shows Flagler’s score dropped from .27 in 2014 to .24 in 2016, making it one of the least diverse campuses in the regional south.

According to James Pickett, associate professor and chair of the Communications Department, “The admissions department has been trying to increase diversity, and certainly there has been an equal effort by faculty. However … it still appears that diversity here has pretty much stayed the same.”

“The school is definitely behind on diversity in comparison with other schools,” said Sarah MacDonald, a Flagler student and president of Club Unity.

To some, the lack of diversity at the school is just a reflection of the conservatism of its administration.

Flagler does not offer its faculty tenure, which a few staffers FW spoke to claimed keeps them muzzled from voicing dissent about the administration or its policies for fear of losing their jobs. (Several faculty and staff spoke to Folio Weekly on condition of anonymity out of concern of retaliation.) And the student newspaper, The Gargoyle, has been censored and once reportedly confiscated outright by Abare.

“One of the issues I left over was censorship,” said former Flagler adjunct professor Nadia Ramoutar, who now teaches at the Art Institute of Jacksonville. “Mostly because, at the time, the college would not allow the students to have a gay/straight alliance. When the student newspaper wrote an article about it, the president [Abare] ordered all of the newspapers to be taken.

“So censorship was a huge issue for me when I was there trying to teach journalism … I had some students at the time who were just absolutely devastated by this.”

The 2007 article she refers to was about students trying to start Club Unity, a reincarnation of the Gay-Straight Alliance, which was denied by the administration in October 2004. According to MacDonald, “The administration originally revoked the charter because it had the word ‘gay’ in the name, which is why we chose the name ‘Club Unity.’

Prior to publication, the administration requested to review the article. The story came back to The Gargoyle for print about 200 words shorter. Folio Weekly was not able to learn what was removed from the piece.

Abare later told The Florida Times-Union that the administration edited the article “due to inaccuracies,” and further said, “As a private institution, we can certainly exercise editorial restraints. The first and most important function of The Gargoyle is to promote the image and reputation of the institution. Period. If it doesn’t do that, then why should we have it?”

Abare declined to comment for this story.

The administration approved Unity Club’s charter in 2008. Nevertheless, some feel that this is a small step that doesn’t go nearly far enough.

“For those of us involved in the club, we’d like to see so much more from the college,” said MacDonald. “ … How are we supposed to make an impact on our school when the administration won’t allow us to provide the simplest things? It’s like the current administration doesn’t really care about us or the community.”

MacDonald opined that other clubs, like the Muslim Student Association and the Black Student Association, “support great things” without much help from the school.

MacDonald did concede that some progress has been made, however. “In the past couple years, our club has definitely started to grow as people have begun to understand and accept information about the LGBT community. However, going and seeing the other college campuses near us, they don’t have half the battle we have here,” she said.

According to Flagler insiders, there has been a long-standing armistice between the administration and those it oversees. They say the college’s liberal students and faculty orbit about an ultra-conservative enclave of close-knit politicians and businessmen whom occupy various administrative positions within the college. With the ascension of Joyner, many doubt that much will change in that regard.

Folio Weekly was first informed that Joyner was a shoo-in for the job in September, weeks before the application deadline. Last week, on Nov. 10, the school announced that Joyner was one of two finalists for the position. The other finalist is Dr. John Stewart, president of the University of Montevallo in Alabama.

“From what I’ve heard, Joyner has the inside track to the presidency. But that’s all I really know,” said one Flagler faculty member.

“The word is that he’s their top candidate,” said Ramoutar. “And it makes perfect sense. He fits what they’ve had since the beginning: a political, old, white male. It’s so not surprising to me that someone who was a board member only a couple years ago is now going to run for president because Flagler has a tendency to be a very political place. That’s just how it is over there. Even though Joseph Joyner has no higher education leadership experience.”

According to an article in First Coast Magazine, in addition to serving as superintendent since 2003, Joyner had previously worked as a principal, coach and teacher. He also served on Flagler’s board of trustees from 2014-15.

“The search committee is completely stacked for one candidate, Joseph Joyner,” said another Flagler faculty member.

Possibly further tainting the selection process, some on the 15-person selection committee may have conflicts of interest.

Frank Upchurch III, the chair of the selection committee and general counsel for the college, is also the attorney for the St. Johns County school board.

Mark Bailey, also on the search committee, is president of The Bailey Group, the administrator of health insurance for the St. Johns County School District, and has recently renewed its contract to continue providing said services.

Lastly, search committee member Tracey Upchurch, who is a relation of Frank Upchurch, is married to a St. Johns County schoolteacher.

“We’ve known for months, it’s been well understood on campus that Joyner has already been chosen to be the next president,” said a Flagler faculty member. “It’s been the worst-kept secret and the whole campus knows about it. The search process is just a big waste of everyone’s time and money. I’d hate to be one of the other candidates foolishly believing this is actually a fair, open, competitive, and professional search process.”

The faculty member also believes that Joyner was appointed to Flagler’s board to give him higher education experience.

“Regardless, the job of a county superintendent is radically different from the job of a college president … . The whole idea that somehow being a county school superintendent qualifies you to be a college president is completely ludicrous,” the individual said.

Some Flagler employees also believe that Proctor, the school’s chancellor, is quietly involved in the selection process.

“Proctor is the school’s chancellor. That’s not like an honorary or ceremonial thing. As chancellor, Proctor makes a lot of decisions for the college involving policy and budget and personnel,” said a faculty member.

Proctor also acts as the school’s Title IX officer. There are those who question if an 83-year-old, Southern white male is the ideal person to be in charge of adjudicating sexual harassment policy.

Joyner often boasts that his county is a miracle school district with ever-rising grades and test scores. But some believe these stats are immaterial to Joyner’s leadership and that the county’s success is more due to its demographics. St. Johns County is 90 percent white and is home to some of the most educated and affluent residents in the state. Further, according to a recent U.S. Census Bureau survey, as of 2015, St. Johns County, with a median income of just over $70,000, is the richest in the state per capita. Median household income in the second richest county, Collier, is $62,126.

“Flagler is one of the most non-diverse colleges in the state of Florida, and Joyner runs one of the most non-diverse school districts in the state of Florida,” said a faculty member. “So how is Joyner going to add diversity to the college? He’s not. He’s just going to be our third old white guy.”

“The college has done well but the reality is that we are behind the times in obvious ways,” the faculty member added. “Instead of selecting someone who is a proven and innovative leader in higher education, we are getting a friend of the two Bills [Abare and Proctor], who will never be able to lead us beyond the status quo… . And we’re way behind the curve. This year, for the first time, we actually had a shortfall on enrollment and now we’re having budget problems.”

According to one Flagler insider, “The four priorities of the next president must be student recruitment, fundraising, sustaining and starting baccalaureate and graduate programs, and enhancing diversity. In Joyner’s four decades in the public school system, he’s never had to recruit students, raise any real money from private donors, initiate or oversee college level academic programs, and he’s from the most non-diverse school district in the state of Florida. Other than that, he should make a fabulous president for Flagler College.”