Florida Chief Financial officer Jeff Atwater and former U.S. Sen. George LeMieux have serious questions to answer when they interview today for the presidency of Florida Atlantic University. They can start by explaining how they are possibly qualified to lead a large public university with its share of controversy. Political experience should not automatically disqualify anyone from becoming a university president, but applicants ought to at least have a demonstrated commitment to improving education that Atwater and LeMieux lack.
Atwater, a former state Senate president, and LeMieux, who spent 16 months in the U.S. Senate, abruptly surfaced as candidates for FAU president. They say they were recruited to apply, and it comes as no surprise that they are among 10 finalists being interviewed by the university's trustees. Gov. Rick Scott has vouched for both of them. But Florida should be beyond valuing political ties over education credentials in selecting university presidents.
The nation's fourth largest state underperforms in higher education. Only one of its 12 public universities, the University of Florida, ranks among the nation's top 50 in the annual U.S. News & World Report rankings. All are underfunded and most are overcrowded. Spending cuts during the recession cost the state quality professors who fled for jobs elsewhere, and there has been a lack of leadership from Tallahassee. Selecting a university president based solely on political connections sends the wrong signal about whether Florida is serious about elevating the quality of higher education.
Political leaders can make good university presidents, but they should have a demonstrated commitment to education. Former FAU president Frank Brogan was a teacher, principal, county school superintendent and education commissioner as well as lieutenant governor. Former University of South Florida president Betty Castor had been a teacher and state education commissioner. Former Florida State University president T.K. Wetherell held a doctorate degree in education administration and was president of Tallahassee Community College as well as House speaker.
Neither Atwater nor LeMieux, who was former Gov. Charlie Crist's chief of staff, have such backgrounds. And now comes word that a member of the FAU search committee, Palm Beach lawyer Wendy Sartory Link, used Atwater as a reference when she sought her position on the state university system's Board of Governors. Her law firm also recently won a lucrative contract with the state-run Citizens Property Insurance Corp., and Atwater as CFO helps oversee Citizens and appoints some of its directors. The optics aren't good.
FAU opened just 50 years ago and has about 30,000 students, five branch campuses and a new medical school. Based in Boca Raton, it also has experienced some recent controversy. One FAU professor said the Sandy Hook school shooting and the bombing at the Boston Marathon were staged. Another staged a classroom exercise on symbolism termed the "Jesus Stomp." And the former university president was forced to reverse a plan to name the football stadium after a private prison company. Selecting a president based more on politics than education experience is not going to help FAU's image, and it would send a bad signal to the rest of the nation about Florida's commitment to improving higher education.
University of Florida president Bernie Machen is still in Gainesville only because the governor persuaded him to stay a bit longer as a search committee looked for a successor. USF president Judy Genshaft has held her job for 13 years and won't be around forever. Both were accomplished university leaders before they came to Florida, and this state should not send the message that the favored route to university president is through political power plays.
FAU trustees should select a president who is well-suited to raise its academic performance — not just its profile in Tallahassee. The question today for Atwater and LeMieux should be about their qualifications to lead FAU on all fronts, not just politics.