University of Akron President Matthew Wilson is one of eight semifinalists for the presidency of the University of Central Florida in Orlando.

Members of a presidential search committee for the 66,000-student UCF met Thursday morning and narrowed a list of more than 40 applicants to the eight semifinalists including Wilson, who has proved popular with students since taking over the top UA post in 2016.

“Please know that I am just exploring this opportunity at this point, and that I will continue to move UA forward with all of my energy,” Wilson wrote in an email sent to the UA community Thursday afternoon.

Wilson, who joined UA in 2014 as dean of its law school, became the university’s 17th president in 2016, replacing Scott Scarborough — who resigned in July 2016 after a contentious two years.

Last October, UA trustees approved increasing Wilson’s annual salary 21.6 percent to $450,000 and extending his contract through June 30, 2023. The salary increase is being funded by the University of Akron Foundation. Officials at UA, which has been dealing with budget gaps, said last year that it was the first time the foundation has paid for a president’s pay raise.

UCF posted its list of eight semifinalists Thursday; the 15-member search committee will interview the candidates next week. The committee will then vote to bring three to five finalists to campus for two-day interviews between March 1 and 8, and the Board of Trustees will vote March 9 to name a president-elect. The Florida Board of Governors will vote to confirm the selection March 28 or 29.

UA Board of Trustees Chairman Roland Bauer said in a statement issued Thursday afternoon, “The entire Board and I have the utmost confidence in President Wilson and we believe he is doing an extraordinary job here at UA, and we hope he will continue serving our University.”

Bauer said, “Any speculation about the future is just that and there has been no consideration given to what might or might not occur.”

UFC President John C. Hitt said last year that he would retire from the presidency, effective June 30. He has been president since 1992.

UCF, with more than 10 campuses, is the largest university in Florida and is three times the size of UA’s student body of 22,000 students. UCF has a medical school, but no law school.

Florida ties

Wilson said in his email to the UA community, “Having lived in the Orlando area previously, my family and I have always had the mindset of retiring somewhere in the area. I practiced law in Orlando earlier in my career so I still have many good connections there.”

He said, “This position at UCF has been filled for 26 years so it is not something that comes around often. In my mind, it is at least worth having the conversation.

He added: “It would be an honor to remain at UA as I thoroughly enjoy the University community and students. We love UA and the area, too. Also, I appreciate the chance to lead and transform a world-class comprehensive university here at UA that is again on an upward trajectory.”

Wilson has won praise on campus and in the community for his personable style, as well as his efforts to increase UA’s enrollment and address the school’s financial problems.

His predecessor, Scarborough, inherited a budget gap primarily caused by a debt-financed building boom and declines in enrollment, and was criticized for various actions, including ways he chose to cut costs.

Semifinalist field

At Thursday morning’s search committee meeting at UCF, consultant Laurie Wilder said she was disappointed with the lack of diversity among the strongest potential candidates for the job, according to an Orlando Sentinel report.

The other semifinalists for the job are:

• James Dean, former executive vice chancellor and provost, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.

• Kelvin Droegemeier, vice president for research, University of Oklahoma.

• Suresh Garimella, executive vice president for research and partnerships, Purdue University.

• Venu Govindaraju, vice president for research and economic development, University of Buffalo.

• Mark Kennedy, president, University of North Dakota.

• James Weyhenmeyer, professor and vice president of research and economic development, Georgia State University.

• Dale Whittaker, provost and executive vice president, University of Central Florida.

Katie Byard can be reached at 330-996-3781 or kbyard@thebeaconjournal.com. You can follow her @KatieByardABJ on Twitter or on Facebook at www.facebook.com.