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Searches for key university presidents could get more scrutiny

Two of the state's most important universities are about to choose new leaders — an already delicate exercise that could soon get more touchy.

The new president of the University of Florida will lead the state's flagship. Florida A&M University's leader will have the burden of pulling the state's only historically black public university out of crisis.

Here comes the extra wrench.

The overseers of the state university system, who are supposed to leave hiring and firing decisions up to universities, now want a bigger role in the search process.

"We really do need not leave this to each individual university to decide over time if they will or won't accept our involvement of the selection of the new president," said university system chancellor Frank Brogan, in a conference call Thursday with the Florida Board of Governors.

"We've got to get engaged," agreed board chairman Dean Colson.

Those kinds of comments could leave universities squirming.

Benign as they seem, they follow a history of power struggling in the state university system. And they highlight a governance do-si-do that, even years later, is still being choreographed.

In other words, watch your toes.

• • •

Years ago, one board controlled the state's public universities. The Board of Regents picked presidents, had the power to fire them and made many more ground-level academic decisions.

That changed in 2000, when a political fracas led to the Regents' elimination, and in its place, each university got its own Board of Trustees.

Two years later, a big board was back. Florida voters approved the creation of the Florida Board of Governors to oversee the university system. The university boards stayed in place, with the Board of Governors devolving much of the power over the nitty-gritty decisions back to them.

It included presidential searches. The board would simply confirm, or veto, the final picks.

That seemed too hands-off for Board of Governors member Tom Kuntz, who joined the board earlier this year.

"It doesn't feel like we would have a large or even a small say in the matter," Kuntz said Thursday, as the board discussed the FAMU presidency.

Brogan said the board's involvement is vital to ensure presidents are invested in not just the good of one university, but the entire system as a whole.

"As we look at regulations that need to be tweaked in the future," Brogan said, "this is one we ought to look at to decide what that involvement would entail."

For now, Colson told his fellow board members, he would touch base with UF and FAMU and make clear the board's interest in being kept in the loop. But a more permanent change could be down the road.

Asked later to explain, Colson told a reporter that perhaps the board could require that several board members sit on any university's presidential search committee. And universities' boards of trustees would routinely update the Board of Governors on the search's progress.

Still, "It's a delicate balance," he told the board. "We don't want to neuter our boards of trustees."

Representatives from FAMU did not respond to requests for comment.

David Brown, chairman of the UF Board of Trustees, responded with a statement: "We intend to work very closely with the Board of Governors throughout this process."

• • •

FAMU will get its search rolling on Monday, with an emergency meeting to talk about the transition plan as James Ammons prepares to leave in October.

UF set the stage for its search this week, with a conference call to authorize the creation of a search committee.

Regardless of who's involved, neither search will be easy.

FAMU must find someone to clean up a campus in crisis — a duty that has eluded a string of FAMU presidents for a decade.

The university is still dealing with the continuing fallout of the November hazing death of one of its students. It's just one of a host of other problems, including an investigation by the Board of Governors into the university's internal controls.

Meanwhile, UF must replace the highly regarded Bernie Machen at a time when state funding for higher education continues to erode, a frustration Machen was vocal about.

And then there's another presidential search on the horizon, one likely to be watched just as closely: The selection of a leader for the new Florida Polytechnic University.

The university's Board of Trustees is filling up quickly. Of the 13 slots, four were filled Thursday by the Board of Governors, and four more were filled Friday by Gov. Rick Scott.

Kim Wilmath can be reached at kwilmath@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3337.

Searches for key university presidents could get more scrutiny 07/13/12 [Last modified: Saturday, July 14, 2012 8:11am]

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