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

After a months-long search, the University of South Florida is getting close to choosing the finalists to replace outgoing president Judy Genshaft. But some local officials say the process lacks the openness a public university should have. [CHRIS URSO   |   Times]
After a months-long search, the University of South Florida is getting close to choosing the finalists to replace outgoing president Judy Genshaft. But some local officials say the process lacks the openness a public university should have. [CHRIS URSO | Times]
Published Feb. 28, 2019

As the University of South Florida approaches its deadline to name finalists for the president's job, the public is still largely in the dark about who is being pursued for the position and how.

Though a USF trustee announced in January he had reviewed more than 30 resumes related to the search, the university has provided names of only 11 candidates. All appear to lack the required credentials.

Since then, at least two Tampa Bay area officials have publicly called for more transparency from the university, and multiple legislators shared related concerns with the Tampa Bay Times Thursday.

"The names and resumes are public records, and Florida taxpayers and those who care about the future of USF … deserve to know," St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman said in a tweet Tuesday.

USF board of trustees chairman Brian Lamb has a different take. The university has the right to shield prospective applicants from public view who are currently engaged with USF-hired consultants until those people are ready to officially apply, he said.

"The public is aware of what they should know at this point," he said in an interview. "We will continue to provide transparency as this process progresses."

Secrecy is common when it comes to president searches at public universities.

Just five years ago, the University of Florida hired president W. Kent Fuchs after a secretive search that involved private planes, alternate email accounts and hotel reservations made under false names. Similarly, inside conversations between John Thrasher and consultants working for Florida State University began long before he was named president in 2014.

At USF, though, officials have promised transparency from the start in their search to replace outgoing president Judy Genshaft. But little has been seen.

At the first meeting for a presidential search committee in October, consultants from Greenwood/Asher & Associates told members that they must tread lightly to circumvent Florida's public records laws. Otherwise, high-quality candidates would be less likely to apply for fear of losing their current jobs, Jan Greenwood said.

RELATED: USF's presidential search will start amid secrecy

The same committee is responsible for delivering names of at least three finalists to the USF board of trustees by the end of March. Its 15 members have not met since November and have no future meetings scheduled. The deadline for applications is March 15.

Instead, all recruitment and correspondence with potential candidates is being done in private by Greenwood, according to the university. She regularly passes information along to USF trustee Les Muma, who heads the committee.

In an interview Thursday, Muma said it was a "slip of the tongue" on Jan. 14, when he announced to a room of more than 100 people that Greenwood had provided him with "30 to 40 resumes" to review.

"I was talking to our search firm during that period of time, and (Greenwood) would give me names," he said. "I made notes of those, just on sticky sheets or scratch paper, and I would go online … to look at these prospects."

He said none of the people he and Greenwood discussed have actually applied and therefore should not be available for the public's review.

"You have to look out for the safety of the applicants," he said. "You've got to keep it quiet until they're ready to go public."

In a similar arena, the search for school superintendents in Florida, school boards routinely share the names of all applicants and are able to find quality candidates.

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: 11 apply for USF president's job, though more are likely in the running

On Jan. 22, the Times requested the resumes Muma mentioned, but was told the university had "no records responsive." The newspaper made a similar request Feb. 15 and has yet to receive a response.

Gerard Solis, general counsel for USF, said anything Muma has written but not distributed about potential candidates is considered a "personal note" and does not fall under public record. He said the university has notified Greenwood/Asher of the Times' request but has received nothing back.

To state Sen. Darryl Rouson, a Democrat from St. Petersburg, all work by the search firm should be available to the public now.

"Both students and faculty will build important relationships with the president," he said in an interview. "It's important that we know the integrity of the search."

Pinellas County commissioner Charlie Justice has shared similar opinions online, saying in a tweet that USF's process is "not compliant with Florida's public records requirements." He did not return calls for comment.

State Sen. Joe Gruters, who represents Sarasota County, said "there is always room for improvement" in the state's university president searches. He said he is in the loop about USF only because of personal phone calls with officials there. And even then, he said, he doesn't know much.

"If I was a member of the board of trustees," Gruters said, "I would be saying we want as much transparency and as much public notice and knowledge as is available."

The remainder of the search will be closely watched and "scrutinized" by lawmakers as the legislative session begins this month, state Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, said in an interview, adding that "USF needs to follow the law."

The only area official reached by the Times to agree with USF's process was state Rep. Chris Latvala. The Clearwater Republican said he's more concerned about protecting potential applicants' privacy than letting the public in on the search process.

"I understand USF's perspective and why they want to keep it private," he said. "They want the absolute best candidate they can get. … My constituents would want the best candidate, too."

Tampa City Council member Luis Viera said while he sees that point, it's not enough to overrule the public's right to access information held by a public university. His district includes USF.

"There is no easy answer when you are trying to balance privacy and the public's right to know," Viera said. "But I always go with the spirit of openness. … When you're dealing with public entities, you have to be open."

Staff writer Josh Solomon contributed to this report. Contact Megan Reeves at mreeves@tampabay.com. Follow @mareevs.