Faculty groups blast Florida bill to make presidential searches more secret

At state colleges and universities, they say, the process to find top leaders should be more open to the public, not less.
The presidential search committee at the University of South Florida met for the second time on Oct. 22. From left are member Jose Valiente, chairperson Mike Griffin, search firm leader Alberto Pimentel and member Oscar Horton.
The presidential search committee at the University of South Florida met for the second time on Oct. 22. From left are member Jose Valiente, chairperson Mike Griffin, search firm leader Alberto Pimentel and member Oscar Horton. [ DIVYA KUMAR | Times (2021) ]
Published Jan. 25, 2022|Updated Jan. 27, 2022

A bill that would keep parts of the presidential selection process secret at Florida’s public colleges and universities is drawing harsh criticism from faculty leaders, who call it an authoritarian move.

With presidential searches underway at four state universities, faculty organizations in Florida and beyond say the legislation threatens to blur the line between higher education and politics. Many point to last year’s presidential search at Florida State University, where the name of education commissioner Richard Corcoran, a former House Speaker, found its way onto a short list late in the search process.

“We see this as nothing less than an attempt to streamline corruption,” United Faculty of Florida president Andrew Gothard said, referring to the bill. “We’re taking the public’s right and handing it over and treating public universities like private businesses.”

The statewide union is polling its members about the bill and the 300 responses so far indicate many of them have deep concerns, Gothard said.

A statement released Tuesday from the American Association of University Professors called it a move toward “authoritarianism” on the heels of the University of Florida’s academic freedom controversy.

“The apparent motivation is to avoid transparency, and to deny faculty and other members of the campus community opportunities to meet with the candidates applying to lead their institutions during these challenging times,” association president Irene Mulvey wrote. “This is yet another attempt to control the truth, to enable them to make a decision on a new president without any of the requisite and valuable input from the faculty and staff that the new president will lead.”

Senate Bill 520 would prevent the names of presidential applicants from being made public until they are finalists, and for discussions involving nonfinalists to be exempt from public meeting requirements.

The bill was filed by state Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, and is on the Rules Committee agenda for Thursday. A modified House version stipulates the finalists must be identified by name when selected or 14 days prior to an interview of a candidate or meeting where a final selection will be made. Neither bill requires a number of finalists to be named. If passed, it would take effect immediately.

Similar practices currently take place with the private search firms hired by many public universities. At Florida State University, which completed its presidential search last May, Corcoran’s name was added to the short list of candidates before it was met with swift public backlash and an inquiry from the accrediting body for the Southeastern United States.

His name was not among the list of finalists. Since then, four of the 12 state university presidents have announced they were stepping down. The list includes the University of South Florida, the University of Florida, Florida International University and the University of North Florida. Two other presidents — at New College and the University of Central Florida — have been replaced since 2020.

At USF, the presidential search committee hired SP&A Executive Search, the same private search firm that led FSU’s process. Alberto Pimentel, head of the firm, has bemoaned Florida’s public records laws from the outset, and has echoed the sentiments expressed in the bill, which says it will improve the pool of candidates.

“Many, if not most, applicants for such a position are currently employed at another job at the time they apply and could jeopardize their current positions if it were to become known that they were seeking employment elsewhere,” the bill says. “If potential applicants fear the possibility of losing their current jobs as a consequence of attempting to progress along their chosen career path or simply seeking different and more rewarding employment, failure to have these safeguards in place could have a chilling effect on the number and quality of applicants.”

While USF officials initially planned to have a new president selected by January, they later slowed their timeline due to their satisfaction with interim president Rhea Law. At a Dec. 7 board of trustees meeting, chairperson Will Weatherford, a former House Speaker, assured other trustees that, within 45 days, the university’s “friends” in the Legislature would likely pass a bill that could help with their search.

The only people benefiting from the bill would be those at executive search firms, argued Judith Wilde and James Finkelstein, both professors at George Mason University.

“These firms have a vested interest in keeping the names of candidates confidential at all stages of a presidential search,” they said in a letter to Senate Education Committee. “There is a limited pool of qualified candidates to fill vacancies for the roughly 200-300 public and private presidencies that are opened in any given year. Every institution wants to hire their first choice but is also reluctant to hire someone who has been rejected elsewhere. Yet, we know from our research that most candidates for these positions explore and/or apply for multiple positions.”

The idea that current laws discourage candidates from applying because of fear over the backlash is flawed, said Wilde, who has researched the use of search firms for top university positions and studied more than 100 presidential contracts.

She pointed to the Montana State president, who in 2019 told the board of her university that she was being asked by search firms to apply elsewhere. They gave her a raise to stay.

In an interview, Wilde said she has seen search firm contracts that threaten professors with the revoking of tenure or even jail time if they violate nondisclosure acts. Faculty networks, she said, are useful for vetting potential candidates.

Mulvey, the American Association of University Professors president, questioned the type of candidate that would want to be president of a university without faculty input in the process.

“It’s a recipe for chaos,” she said in an interview. “The thing is with these public institutions of higher education, they operate for the public good. In Florida right now, we see partisan politics trying to inappropriately impose on higher education.”

Presidents, she said, are intended to be the firewall between politics and academia, but the bill lends itself to the selection of a president who might “kowtow” to pressures from the Legislature or governor.

In her statement, Mulvey recommended universities “resist calls for closed, secretive searches; involve faculty representatives in all stages of the search process; and provide the entire faculty and other members of the campus community with the opportunity to meet with finalists. Such an open and thorough process of selection is fundamental to determining which candidate has the academic leadership and administrative skills needed to successfully lead the university.”

She particularly called on the University of Florida board of trustees “to ensure that the presidential search will be conducted in a transparent manner consistent with AAUP guidelines.” She also encouraged the school to lead and take “this important opportunity to show that public higher education in Florida does in fact continue to serve the public good.”