Gov. Rick Scott's involvement in UF president decision under review

Published Jan. 19, 2013

TALLAHASSEE — The accrediting organization for colleges and universities is looking into Gov. Rick Scott's involvement in the University of Florida's presidential search.

Shortly after the Jan. 8 announcement that Scott had helped persuade UF president Bernie Machen to postpone retirement, a representative from the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools told the Times/Herald it saw no cause for concern because UF Board of Trustees Chairman David Brown was involved in the decision.

Since then, Scott's office confirmed that the governor met with a potential candidate before asking Machen to stay. UF faculty members have expressed concern that Scott was overstepping his authority and interfering in a decision that should be beyond his control.

SACS now tells the Times/Herald it is looking into the matter.

"We are aware of what's going on and we're reviewing it," spokeswoman Pamela Cravey said.

If SACS decides Scott exerted too much influence over Machen and UF trustees, this could be the second time Scott crosses the organization.

The first was in December 2011 after SACS learned the governor publicly suggested Florida A&M University suspend then-president James Ammons a month after the hazing death of drum major Robert Champion.

SACS president Belle Wheelan sent Scott a letter reminding him that school leaders needed to remain free of outside political influences. FAMU's issues with hazing "are those of the university and as such should be handled by the governing board," Wheelan wrote.

The FAMU board was within its rights to suspend Ammons, she continued, but, "if, however, they do so at your direction, they will jeopardize the accreditation of the university as well as its ability to provide federal financial aid to their students."

Scott's chief of staff at the time, Steve MacNamara, defended the governor's decision to weigh in and said he was trying to protect the integrity of the state's investigation into Champion's death. The FAMU Board of Trustees ultimately decided to part ways with Ammons.

Scott's current chief of staff, Adam Hollingsworth, reached out to SACS early this week to discuss the governor's involvement in the UF presidential search, spokeswoman Melissa Sellers said Friday.

"SACS was informed of the conversations because of our respect and understanding of their process, and they said they would take the information into consideration as they look at UF's president selection," Sellers wrote via email. "Gov. Scott understands the independent role of state universities' governing bodies and has always recognized that any decision regarding Machen's presidency is the board's and the board's alone."

The University of Florida said SACS has not contacted school officials about the abandoned presidential search or Machen's decision to stay. Although another rebuke of Scott is most likely if SACS determines he crossed the line, the organization could also reprimand UF for failing to enforce its accreditation standards.

Sustained failures to meet policies could put a school at risk of losing its accreditation status, but that is highly improbable at a top university like UF.

The Times/Herald also learned this week new details about the time line leading up to the Jan. 8 announcement from Scott and Brown.

Scott's office said he met with Machen in Fort Lauderdale the day before, the same day the governor attended the BCS National Championship football game in Miami.

"They discussed the University of Florida and the importance of the school having a national leadership role," Sellers said via email. "The governor told Dr. Machen that he would like him to stay and continue leading the university as they pursue initiatives to improve higher education. However, the governor recognized that such a decision would ultimately have to be made by Dr. Machen and the university's Board of Trustees."

The UF Board of Trustees had planned to review applications on Jan. 10, interview finalists Jan. 11 and name a new president Jan. 12. Instead, the national search was canceled, to the surprise of many.

Scott also said he met with North Carolina State University chancellor Randy Woodson at Brown's request, although Woodson never formally applied for the position. They met in Naples, where Scott owns a home, sometime between Christmas and New Year's Day, the governor's office said.

Scott talked to Woodson about his principles for education and vision for UF. The governor's office said Scott was "impressed." But apparently not enough.