TALLAHASSEE — State Sen. Ray Rodrigues is on track to become leader of Florida’s university system, after a search committee recommended him as its pick to become the system’s chancellor.
Rodrigues was one of eight candidates who applied to succeed Chancellor Marshall Criser, who announced in June that he would step down at the end of the year.
A search committee, made up of five members of the system’s Board of Governors, interviewed Rodrigues and one other finalist, Lori Cromwell, chief business officer for Emory University’s Candler School of Theology, on Friday. The committee decided to recommend Rodrigues to the full board.
Committee member Eric Silagy said Rodrigues would bring “a whole different level of experience” to the chancellor role over Cromwell, citing Rodrigues’ legislative experience and the senator’s employment at Florida Gulf Coast University. Rodrigues, R-Estero, also served eight years in the Florida House.
“Specifically, 16 years within the university system in Florida with budget authority. Interaction with the Board of Governors staff previously. Interaction with, obviously, the Legislature as a member … clearly demonstrates a deep knowledge of both the education system as well as the appropriation system,” said Silagy, who is chairman, president and CEO of Florida Power & Light.
Other committee members said Rodrigues’ previous work with General Electric made him an attractive candidate.
Rodrigues easily was the most politically connected applicant. As an example of his prominence in the Senate, he led redistricting efforts this year. Rodrigues announced in June he would not seek reelection to the Senate, with speculation quickly focused on him becoming chancellor.
The 17-member Board of Governors will meet Sept. 14 to consider approving Rodrigues for the job.
Cromwell and Rodrigues were interviewed Friday about topics such as free speech on campuses. Cromwell said free speech has become a “critical issue” in higher education.
“I think free speech should be protected unless there is significant harm to students or a specific population,” Cromwell said. “As (the) Board of Governors, as university administrators, it is our job to create a space in which intellectual development can occur. And I don’t necessarily think that can occur if people feel threatened in a sense that they are not comfortable.”
Rodrigues praised the university system’s past actions, which he described as reinforcing a commitment to freedom of speech. He cited a 2019 decision by the Board of Governors to sign onto what’s known as the Chicago Statement — a document published by the University of Chicago’s Committee on Free Expression.
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“I believe what we’ve done is correct. That speech, if it’s constitutionally protected, should be allowed on campus, anywhere on campus, and should be free,” Rodrigues said.
Rodrigues was the Senate sponsor of a controversial 2021 law (HB 233) that requires colleges and universities to annually survey students and employees about “intellectual freedom and viewpoint diversity” on campus.
Meeting before the search committee, the Board of Governors on Friday reviewed the results of the first set of surveys, which were conducted in April. Separate surveys were administered to students and employees and were optional to fill out.
Of 368,120 students who were invited to take the surveys, only 8,835 — or 2.4% — submitted responses.
“My college or university classes provide an environment for free expression of ideas, opinions and beliefs,” one of the survey’s prompts said, with 2,676 students responding with “strongly agree,” 2,534 with “agree,” 1,585 with “neither agree nor disagree,” 1,223 with “disagree” and 740 with “strongly” disagree.
A similar ratio of responses was given to a question about whether the students’ campuses foster free expression.
University employees had a higher response rate to the surveys, with 9,238 or 9.4% of the 98,704 employees, responding.
“My institution is equally tolerant and welcoming of both liberal and conservative ideas and beliefs,” said one prompt on the employee survey. In response, 2,243 employees strongly agreed, 2,060 agreed, 1,703 neither agreed or disagreed, 1,621 disagreed and 1,499 strongly disagreed.
Employees who disagreed or strongly disagreed with the question were asked to indicate the ideas and beliefs that were more prevalent. The vast majority of respondents said liberal ideology is most prevalent.
The state is embroiled in a lawsuit that challenges the survey law.
With Rodrigues set to go before the board next month, search committee member Charlie Lydecker attempted to head off criticism about Rodrigues being a politically connected choice.
“We’re just trying to be really thoughtful about not allowing folks that want to be critical, or naysayer, or somebody with hyper-partisan views, whatever that all is, our ability to not fall into a trap of appearing to be making political decision I think is really important,” Lydecker said. “I don’t think that has occurred, but I’m aware of the noise around us on any given day.”
By Ryan Dailey, News Service of Florida