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University president search exemption gains momentum in Florida

If signed into law, it would go into effect immediately.
The campus of Florida Gulf Coast University. [WIKIMEDIA COMMONS]
The campus of Florida Gulf Coast University. [WIKIMEDIA COMMONS]
Published Jan. 27

TALLAHASSEE — With four of Florida’s 12 state universities seeking new leaders and another school’s president soon to retire, lawmakers are speeding ahead with a proposed public records exemption that would shield personal information about applicants to become college and university presidents.

The Senate Rules Committee approved a bill (Senate Bill 520), sponsored by Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, that would keep confidential names and other information that could identify applicants, though information about finalists would be disclosed at the tail end of searches.

With the 12-5 vote, the measure is now ready for consideration by the full Senate. If passed by the Legislature and signed into law by Gov. Ron DeSantis, it would go into effect immediately.

Brandes has argued that the bill is geared toward attracting “the broadest pool of applicants” to the top jobs at colleges and universities.

“While we have some great presidents of universities, it’s my contention that the way to get even better applicants is to ensure that their information is all private, and their current employer is not unnecessarily notified of their search, without (the candidate) initiating that,” Brandes said.

Related: Faculty groups blast Florida bill to make presidential searches more secret

The Senate bill also would provide a public meetings exemption for searches, unless meetings are held for the purposes of establishing qualifications for the job or “establishing any compensation framework” for a candidate. Also, the open meetings exemption would not apply after groups of finalists have been established.

Similar measures have been pursued, unsuccessfully, by the Legislature in previous years. During the 2021 session, the Senate fell one vote short of the 26 votes needed to reach a legally required two-thirds threshold for passing public records exemptions.

But this session, the proposal comes as the University of North Florida and the University of South Florida are being led by interim presidents and are in the process of seeking new leaders.

Also this month, University of Florida President Kent Fuchs announced he will step down at the end of 2022 to work as a professor in the school’s department of electrical and computer engineering.

Related: UF joins two other state universities looking for new presidents

Most recently, Florida International University President Mark Rosenberg abruptly announced his resignation last Friday. Rosenberg, who initially cited personal and family health reasons for stepping down, acknowledged later that his exit came after he caused “discomfort for a valued colleague.” University trustees quickly appointed FIU Chief Financial Officer Kenneth Jessell as interim president.

Florida Gulf Coast University President Mike Martin, who told reporters that he plans to retire on Dec. 31, endorsed the bill during Thursday’s committee meeting.

“I believe this is a critical time for presidents in Florida and nationally. Very soon there will be five openings among the 12 presidents, all at the same time. And this is at the same time that major universities, Michigan, Wisconsin, Colorado, Auburn, South Carolina, Kentucky State — I could run down a whole list, they’re looking for presidents,” Martin told the panel. “The market is very difficult.”

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Martin echoed Brandes’ arguments that the current system of selecting college and university leaders dissuades potential applicants from applying.

“It sends two messages. One is, I’m looking for a job. And the second is, if you don’t make the finals, I must not be very good. Those are not good messages, wherever you are in your career,” Martin said.

But some Democrats on the panel and university faculty members expressed concern that obscuring candidates’ identities would leave presidential searches open to potential corruption.

Sen. Gary Farmer, D-Lighthouse Point, questioned whether “high-ranking insiders” involved in search processes could be stopped from “putting their thumb on the scale” if the measure becomes law.

Andrew Gothard, president of the United Faculty of Florida and a professor of English at Florida Atlantic University, slammed the proposed legislation as “a recipe for corruption.”

“Why does an applicant, a mysterious, unnamed applicant, have more of a right to privacy than the public has a right to an open and honest and transparent hiring process?” Gothard said.

Several members of the state university system’s Board of Governors spoke in favor of the legislation during a meeting Wednesday and rebuked criticisms that the proposal could lead to double-dealing.

“To assert that it’s streamlining corruption or authoritarianism is ridiculous. It’s false, it’s not fair. I think our faculty leadership are better than that,” board member Alan Levine said. “This board has not taken a position on that legislation. But as a member of this board, I take exception to the suggestion that the effort to improve our process is intended to provide corruption.”

With the Senate bill poised to go to the Senate floor, it includes a key difference with the House version (House Bill 703). Brandes told reporters he will not budge on his position.

The House measure would provide at least a 14-day period in which finalists’ information would be made public before selections are made, while the Senate would provide a 21-day window.

“I’m pretty firm on 21 days. I have no desire to go backwards in transparency as far as the 21-day period goes,” Brandes said. “And I have no doubt that if we pass the bill through the Senate with the required amount of votes, that we’re not going to bring the bill back up if it goes over there (to the House) first.”

By Ryan Dailey, News Service of Florida

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