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Senate panel advances bill to partially obscure university presidential searches

Proponents say the measure would attract a wider pool of candidates. Critics say it would hide key information from the public.
Members of the University of South Florida presidential search committee listen to candidate Jeffrey Vitter in 2019, part of a process that led to the selection of Steve Currall. A proposal making its way through the Florida Legislature would obscure the early stages of university presidential searches from public view.
Members of the University of South Florida presidential search committee listen to candidate Jeffrey Vitter in 2019, part of a process that led to the selection of Steve Currall. A proposal making its way through the Florida Legislature would obscure the early stages of university presidential searches from public view.
Published Apr. 20
Updated Apr. 20

The early phases of presidential searches at Florida’s public universities would be shielded from the public eye under a bill approved Tuesday by the Senate rules committee.

The Florida House approved a companion measure last week. Tuesday’s action advances legislation that has been shot down in previous years.

The twin bills, introduced by Sen. Jeff Brandes, R- St. Petersburg, and Rep. Sam Garrison, R-Fleming Island, would keep identifying information about the candidates applying to lead public universities confidential and not subject to public record laws until a group of finalists is chosen, or 21 days before a final selection is made, whichever is earlier.

The intent, Brandes said, is to attract the best pool of applicants. Candidates who hold jobs at the time of their application could fear backlash if their names were leaked and may be deterred, he said.

But critics of the bill said the early release of applicant names is a non-factor in presidential searches, and they raised concerns that putting those decisions behind closed doors could affect fairness and the diversity of the candidate pool.

Karen Morian, president of the United Faculty of Florida, told committee members there was no demonstrated need for the change.

By removing the early stages of the selection process from view, she said, the public will never know if candidates were best suited for the job or who their competition was. Applicants would be placed under a “cloud of doubt,” she said.

“We have for years opposed attempts to hide the process of hiring our presidents,” Morian said. “We know that these presidents will control billions of state funds and will have to do so in the sunshine. We question why they would want to be hired in secrecy.”

She also said the measure places too much responsibility in the hands of private headhunters.

“They will no longer, like third-grade math students, have to show their work,” she said. “They can just put forward names and collect a check.”

Six others spoke against the bill to the Senate committee on Tuesday, questioning if politicians would be involved in backroom dealings.

Indrani Sindhuvalli, who teaches biology at Florida State College, said the measure would erode relations within universities and colleges by excluding students, faculty, staff and local business leaders.

“This is, in a way, a power-grab,” said Rich Templin, who spoke on behalf of the AFL-CIO. “These decisions will now be made by political appointees who are not accountable to the voters, who are not accountable to taxpayers in any way. The sunshine law allows the people to hold them accountable.”

Brandes said head hunting firms hired by universities already circumvent public record laws. He said he believes the university presidents and boards of trustee members he’s spoken with support the bill.

“There’s a reason this bill comes back year after year,” Brandes said. “It’s not about hiding things from the sunshine. It’s hidden today. This simply allows a broad pool of applicants to put their names forward. When we go down to the final three, it’s all public.”

Erin Ryan, a professor of law at Florida State University, which is currently in the process of conducting a search for its next president, said she thinks the issue is complex but that the bill “strikes the right balance” between the desire to get the best candidates and the need for transparency.

She added, however, that schools seeking new leaders should make sure that faculty, staff and students are represented on their search committees.