Florida lawmakers try again to make university president searches secret

Remember the drama over the University of South Florida?
A student walks on the St. Petersburg campus of the University of South Florida, which recently chose a new president.
A student walks on the St. Petersburg campus of the University of South Florida, which recently chose a new president. [ URSO, CHRIS | Times (2019) ]
Published Feb. 7, 2020|Updated Feb. 8, 2020

TALLAHASSEE — It’s back.

A resurrected bill to exempt searches for public university and college presidents, from the slate of applicants to meetings on their compensation packages, from public record is gaining momentum in the Florida Legislature.

Last year, a similar bill was prompted by Tampa Bay-area Republicans as the University of South Florida tried to keep its own search under wraps. This time, as Miami Dade College restarts its search that it scrapped last year, a similar bill was filed by a Miami lawmaker, Sen. Manny Diaz, R-Hialeah. That bill now has a House companion, something last year’s bill never got.

The House State Affairs committee filed a matching bill, which passed that committee 16-6 Thursday. It could buy Miami-Dade College some time to conceal its quest to find a nontraditional candidate to succeed Eduardo J. Padron, who retired in August.

The bill makes the case that an open search would deter “the most experienced and desirable pool of qualified applicants” because “their current positions could be jeopardized if it were to become known that they were seeking employment elsewhere,” according to the bill’s language.

The bill exempts any “identifying information” of any candidates for president of a public state college or university, and allows for meetings where candidates are vetted to be held behind closed doors. A recording of those meetings is required to be taken, though that would not be available to the public, either.

The exemption expires 21 days before a decision is made, allowing the public in on the process once there is a “final group.”

The Miami-Dade College’s board of trustees have made it no secret that they think the Sunshine Law hampers the search.

“The biggest impediment to the search is the Sunshine Law,” board chair Bernie Navarro said in May. The board last year created a last-minute window for dark horses to slide into a round of finalist interviews.

But in Miami Dade College’s case, it’s been the board’s “politics and publicity” that has scared at least one potential applicant away. Local officials went so far as to condemn the process as rigged. Navarro has even cited the community’s lack of faith in the search process.

Mike Budd, a retired Florida Atlantic University professor, spoke against the bill during the committee, saying most faculty “already feel shut out” of presidential searches.

“The public, the students, everyone needs more input into this process rather than less,” he said.

Ana Ciereszko, representing the faculty union from Miami-Dade College, noted that the college is in the midst of a presidential search after the new board scrapped the previous search, one that she called “consistent, transparent and fair.”

“We’re No. 1 in the nation,” she said, referencing Florida’s higher education ranking by U.S. News and World Report. “It’s not broken, therefore we should not fix it.”

Karen Morian, president of the United Faculty of Florida, said that when Colorado moved to a similarly secretive model they ended up hiring more “political insiders.”

But the majority of the committee was unmoved by the critiques.

“In today’s world, social media can destroy a person,” said Rep. Ralph Massullo, R-Lecanto. “I think you do discount those individuals who considered applying, but for whatever reason decided not to, because of the public scrutiny.”