Dr Elizabeth Cottrell, a former speech-writer to Mrs Thatcher, is one of a short list of four contenders for the post of chief executive of the new Association of Colleges.
As Mrs Shephard's special adviser, Dr Cottrell is a political appointee. The prospect of a spokesperson with such close links to a Government not renowned for its generosity to the FE sector has alarmed some college leaders.
The sector hopes its new representative body, formed from the merger of two organisations, will provide a badly-needed single voice for colleges at a time when many are desperately short of cash.
The prospect of Dr Cottrell as colleges' advocate was greeted with suspicion among principals. Colin Flint, principal of Solihul College, said: "People will be extremely sceptical and cynical.
"The whole stance of the Government on, for instance, A-levels and the funding of FE and HE is not a promising background to someone seeking to be the figure representing the FE sector as we approach the 21st century."
However, Dr Cottrell is also understood to be viewed with suspicion by Tory right-wingers, who believe she has little time for their views.
None of the four candidates for the chief executive's post has attracted broad support from across the sector.
Roger Ward, former chief executive of the Colleges' Employers' Forum, inspires loyalty and loathing in equal measure, though some believe he may still be the likeliest contender because his favoured candidates were elected to the AOC board.
Ruth Gee, former chief executive of the Association for Colleges, attracts less hostility, but her supporters won few votes in the board elections.
Roger Brown, chief executive of the Higher Education Quality Council, is little known among principals, who lament the fact that no candidate with college experience has made the short list.