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Florida Senate passes university presidential search exemption

The bill comes as nearly half of the state universities are or will soon be looking for new leaders.
In this aerial view, Century Tower rises from the center of the University of Florida campus in Gainesville.
In this aerial view, Century Tower rises from the center of the University of Florida campus in Gainesville. [ University of Florida ]
Published Feb. 11|Updated Feb. 11

TALLAHASSEE — The Florida Senate on Thursday approved a proposal to conceal information about applicants vying to become college and university presidents, a move that could change a presidential search system that five of Florida’s 12 universities are preparing to begin.

The idea behind the proposal is that secrecy during the early stages of the search process will allow state universities and colleges to draw better candidates who will feel comfortable applying, knowing that their names will not become public — including to their current bosses.

“This is going to create a better process for the state,” said Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, the sponsor of Senate Bill 520.

But critics, among them Democrat and faculty union groups, say that argument is a “talking point” and that the effort will “invite further politicization of our college and university campuses.”

“We won’t get a significant difference in qualified applicants. Instead, we will get more insider candidates, and we will risk losing our state university and college system preeminence,” said Sen. Lori Berman, D-Boynton Beach. “Please vote no on this bill and vote for transparency.”

The five universities already looking for new presidents or will be doing so soon are Florida International University, the University of South Florida, the University of Florida, the University of North Florida and Florida Gulf Coast University.

Alberto Pimentel, the head of SP&A Executive Search, who is working to help USF find its next president and helped Florida State University in its search last year, has argued that privacy early on in the search process would help draw more qualified candidates.

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

The 28 to 11 vote was bipartisan. Senate Democrats had enough votes to kill the proposed records exemption, but four members of the caucus voted with the Republican majority in favor of the bill.

Some Democrats bemoaned the lack of a “team” effort against the measure, which they criticized in part for running afoul of Florida’s tradition of keeping governmental proceedings transparent. But the measure, which has long been debated in the Legislature, received support from Democrats who said they believed the process will allow Florida universities and colleges to attract a broader pool of candidates.

The Senate proposal would keep confidential the names and any other information that could identify applicants until a final group of applicants is established, or 21 days before a candidate is chosen for the job.

A similar bill in the House would reduce that time frame to 14 days, a detail that Brandes said he won’t budge on.

“You have my commitment that we will stand firm as the Senate with 21 days if it passes through the Senate today,” Brandes told his Senate colleagues, some of whom were concerned about negotiations with the House.

Shortly after the measure passed the Senate, House Speaker Chris Sprowls told reporters that he was not aware of the differences between the House and Senate measures, but said he supports the concept and called the current system “a bizarre process.”

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“There is not another job out there, where somebody tells their employer who’s currently paying their bills, paying for their family’s health care and their health insurance, ‘Hey, I’m going to go look for another job,’ " Sprowls said. “These are massive organizations that are in charge of educating students and preparing our workforce. We need the absolute best people at the helm.”

Sprowls added that if the measure helps Florida get better candidates, “then I am all for it.”

If approved by the Legislature and signed by Gov. Ron DeSantis, the measure would go into effect immediately. The push for immediacy is no coincidence.

Brandes has not shied away from saying he hopes the measure can help the universities that are starting the process of searching for new leaders.

FSU’s presidential search last year was marked by controversy when one of the candidates, education commissioner Richard Corcoran, was the subject of a sternly worded letter from the university’s regional accreditation board after the first round of interviews.

The Southern Association of Colleges and Schools raised concerns about potential conflicts with Corcoran’s candidacy. Corcoran is a member of the state university system’s Board of Governors, which ultimately would have had to approve the candidate selected by the FSU Board of Trustees.

Ultimately, FSU offered the job to Richard McCullough, the vice provost of research at Harvard University.

On Thursday, Senate Republicans and some Democrats said they do wish previous university presidential searches would have yielded more nationally recognized candidates.

“If you all look right now at Florida State University, I want you to ask yourselves: How many national presidents did you see apply for the position? None. None of them did. Why? Because of their fear of being ousted and losing their jobs,” said Senate Education Vice chairperson Shevrin Jones, D-West Park.

Jones further argued that the bill does not stop any candidates from going on social media and broadcasting publicly that they themselves are candidates.

Sen. Ray Rodrigues, R-Estero, argued the bill is needed to allow Florida universities to compete.

“We are going to be competing with a half-dozen other top-flight universities across the country who are going to be looking for presidents at the same time we are.”

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