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Experts urge caution as Florida lawmakers push to make college president searches more secret

Florida lawmakers are considering a bill that would largely shield president searches at state universities and colleges from public view. The Univerity of South Florida, pictured here, has been criticized for its lack of transparency in finding its new president, Steve Currall, who will take over for retiring leader Judy Genshaft on July 1. [CHRIS URSO | Times]
Published Apr. 5

TALLAHASSEE — On the heels of a presidential search at the University of South Florida that is still drawing criticism for lacking transparency, state lawmakers are looking to greenlight even more secrecy.

Despite opposition from about a dozen speakers and with no debate, a Florida House committee approved HB7115 last week. If the bill becomes law, it would permit state colleges and universities to further distance the public from the process of hiring presidents.

Names of applicants would be secret. Meetings to discuss or interview candidates would be private. And though the names of finalists would be made public at least 30 days before a final vote, the names of those not chosen would never be revealed.

Lawmakers backing the proposal contend it would ensure that schools get quality candidates by guaranteeing their names will not be disclosed.

Any more openness puts the state at a disadvantage against schools in places with stricter public records laws, state Rep. Blaise Ingoglia, R-Spring Hill, said Friday. Ingoglia, who chairs the House State Affairs Committee, which introduced the bill, said it would make presidential searches "better for the people who are applying."

However, multiple experts said in interviews there is no proof that open university president searches result in lower-quality applicant pools.

"I've not seen any compelling evidence that a university would not be able to find outstanding leadership in an open procedure," said Michael Poliakoff, president of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni.

The bill becoming law would be a "step backward" for Florida, he added, and the lawmakers behind it should be able to demonstrate why it's needed.

Ingoglia said he could not point to a specific instance where Florida's public records laws dissuaded someone from applying for a university president job. He repeatedly declined to say who wrote the bill.

"The evidence is common sense," he said. "Quite frankly, I don't care what the experts say."

The proposed legislation builds upon secrecy tactics already used by Florida institutions, including USF, which did not reveal its full list of candidates until days before officials picked one as the new president.

RELATED: USF says its search for a new president is open to the public. Is it?

In 2014, the University of Florida paid for charter jets, booked hotel rooms under false names and routed communications to private email accounts — all to shield candidates from the public view before selecting Kent Fuchs as president.

The same year, Florida State University hired John Thrasher as president after scrutiny that he had long been in private conversations with a search consultant working for the school. Similar events have played out at institutions across the country, including some that billed campus police to protect candidates from view and turn away reporters.

Jack Stripling, a senior reporter at the Chronicle of Higher Education, called the increasing secrecy in university president searches a "national phenomenon." The trend, he said, can be attributed to the growing use of consultants who specialize in recruiting educators and often push the idea of keeping searches closed to the public.

"We now have a new industry, a consultant class, that is telling (university officials) this is the only way," Stripling said. "Universities follow the lead of their peers, and everyone is doing it."

Judith Wilde, a professor who leads the George Mason University school of policy and government, said the use of search firms has increased tremendously since the mid-1970s. About 2 percent of American institutions used search firms to find presidents then, compared to about 92 percent in 2015-16, according to her research.

There is "no empirical evidence" that public searches deter high quality candidates from applying to lead a university, Wilde said. But that's what consultants — whose function is to woo educators from around the country — tell their clients.

"A secret search makes it much easier for them to recycle candidates to several different universities," Wilde added.

Frank LoMonte, director of the Brechner Center for Freedom of Information at UF, put it this way: "If you are a search firm, your merchandise is your list of resumes. That's what you have to sell. Having the candidates discussed in public for one search damages their merchandise" for future searches.

The push for more secrecy, he said, "has nothing at all to do with the quality of the candidates, and everything to do with protecting the commercial business of search firms."

Jan Greenwood, who facilitated the search from USF, declined to comment Friday. Her firm, Greenwood/Asher & Associates, has facilitated more than 2,000 searches across the country since 1992.

MORE: St. Pete Mayor Rick Kriseman calls out USF for clouded president search — again

Rich Templin, director of politics and public policy for the Florida arm of a national labor non-profit, urged lawmakers at Thursday's committee meeting to think twice about the bill. He noted that Florida's colleges and universities have been celebrated by top officials, including Gov. Ron DeSantis and Sen. Rick Scott, for their high rankings.

"Our legislative leaders and our governor have been crowing about the fact that Florida is ranked No. 1 in the nation for higher education in U.S. News and World Report," Templin said. "If we are ranked No. 1 in the nation, if we are bringing in the most qualified talent from around the country already, what is the need for putting this in the dark?"

Karen Morian told committee members that Florida State College in Jacksonville, where she is a professor, had no problems finding a new president recently.

"We had 74 highly qualified applicants for that position," said Morian, president of the United Faculty of Florida, a union representing faculty and staff in the state. "Seventy-one of them were from out of state and were not afraid to do business in the sunshine."

The bill is also opposed by the nonprofit First Amendment Foundation, which advocates for openness in government.

In an interview, Rep. Chris Latvala, a Republican from Clearwater, said about half of the states have restrictions on college president searches. He told the Times last month that he supported USF's efforts to keep its president search under wraps.

Wilde, the George Mason professor, said the names of presidential candidates have gotten out in a few instances and caused problems for them. For example, former University of Akron president Matt Wilson faced criticism for applying to lead the University of Central Florida last year. He was not picked for the job and soon after stepped down from his role at the Ohio school, according to the Akron Beacon Journal

Still, Wilde said, "I would not say that it happens enough to be considered a major issue."

Keeping the public from a president search can have consequences, Poliakoff said, because it bypasses an opportunity to build public trust.

"The university community loses its capacity to have full input," he said. "There have certainly been cases where a new leader just really hasn't been a good fit after coming out of a closed search."

Similarly, LoMonte says secret searches put new presidents at a disadvantage.

"A president who comes in without any public communication is a weakened president," he said. "That president is in a precarious position with the university stakeholders. It's not good for the president, and it's certainly not good for the community."

Poliakoff said it's good the Florida bill calls for universities to release the names of finalists, but wonders why the state wouldn't want to recruit candidates that are proud to announce their candidacy here.

"There's something very good about a person wanting a position … enough to take the step of explaining to their home institution that they want to pursue an opportunity," he said.

A nearly identical bill passed the Florida House in 2017, then died after the Senate refused to hear it. That could be the fate of this year's bill, too — as of Friday, the Senate had yet to introduce its own version.

The legislation would have to pass the floor of each chamber with a two-thirds vote to become law.

Contact Megan Reeves at mreeves@tampabay.com. Follow @mareevs.

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