University of Akron President Matthew Wilson is among four finalists for the top job at the University of Central Florida.

The UCF board of trustees is scheduled to vote March 9 to name a president-elect after interviewing the finalists earlier that day. Each finalist will meet with students, faculty, alumni, donors and others at separate open forums on the Orlando campus set for March 2-8.

Wilson, 46, who has been leading UA for about 20 months following the contentious two-year presidency of Scott Scarborough, was among eight semifinalists for the UCF post who were interviewed Thursday and Friday.

The UCF search committee selected the four finalists Friday afternoon shortly after the last semifinalist interview ended around 2:30 p.m.

The other finalists are: Dale Whittaker, provost and executive vice president of the University of Central Florida; Mark Kennedy, president of the University of North Dakota; and Suresh Garimella, executive vice president for research and partnerships at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind.

Shortly after UCF posted the list of finalists Friday, UA Board Chair Roland Bauer released a prepared statement saying, “The Board of Trustees reaffirms its commitment to continue the progress that we are making here at UA.”

Bauer said, “While we would like President Wilson to stay with us, we will move forward aggressively with the initiatives that have been launched that help make UA even more distinctive.”

Wilson declined to comment Friday. UA spokesman Wayne Hill said Wilson was busy in Akron with “back-to-back meetings on UA business” after returning from his Thursday interview in Florida.

‘Down-to-earth Matt’

Wilson described himself to the UCF search committee as “down-to-earth Matt,” preferring to meet students through informal means such as pickup basketball games and town hall meetings as opposed to formal “state of the university speeches,” according to the Orlando Sentinel.

Wilson also touted his fundraising experience, describing the UA law school building as “decrepit” when he arrived in 2014, according to the newspaper.

He said he spearheaded a $21 million renovation of the building without taking on debt.

UA officials touted the debt-free renovation last September, shortly before the building was dedicated. More than $7 million of the $21 million project was paid for with donations, including the $1.5 million from Akron businessman David Brennan, and his wife, Ann Amer Brennan, a UA law school alumnus. The state kicked in $5 million, and the remainder came from law school savings.

Short span, big impact

Wilson’s potential departure caught many by surprise because of his short tenure and his popularity among students and others in the community.

Wilson, in an email to the UA community last week, sought to explain his interest in the post at the 66,000-student university. He noted he practiced law early in his career in Orlando, and he said he and his family had “always had the mindset of retiring somewhere in the Orlando area.”

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.”

UCF President John C. Hitt, president of the school since 1992, said last year that he would retire effective June 30.

Former dean of the UA law school, Wilson was appointed interim president of the 22,000-student UA in July 2016 following Scarborough’s resignation amid calls for his ouster.

Scarborough, who inherited budget woes that continue at UA, was criticized for various cuts he made, among other actions.

UA trustees removed the interim tag from Wilson’s title in October 2016. Last fall, UA trustees approved increasing his annual salary 21.6 percent to $450,000 (the same as what Scarborough was earning before he resigned) and extending his contract through June 30, 2023.

Wilson, who is UA’s 17th president, has overseen the launch of a variety of programs, some of which he noted in a cover letter and resume he submitted in applying for the UCF post.

Wilson also noted other efforts to retain students and increase enrollment, including creation of an International Center, focused on recruitment and retention of international students.

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.