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DeSantis backs GOP legislator in FAU president search

Rep. Randy Fine said Gov. DeSantis approached him about the position.
 
State Rep. Randy Fine told his Facebook followers on Monday evening that Gov. Ron DeSantis approached him to see if he would be interested in becoming Florida Atlantic University's next president.
State Rep. Randy Fine told his Facebook followers on Monday evening that Gov. Ron DeSantis approached him to see if he would be interested in becoming Florida Atlantic University's next president. [ PHELAN M. EBENHACK | AP ]
Published March 28, 2023|Updated March 29, 2023

TALLAHASSEE — A Florida Republican lawmaker who has used his position in the state Legislature to shepherd sweeping, sometimes controversial education reforms into law, says he is considering applying to take the helm at Florida Atlantic University.

And Gov. Ron DeSantis’ office says he would be a “good candidate.”

Rep. Randy Fine, a conservative firebrand from Palm Bay who is running for the state Senate, told his Facebook followers on Monday evening that the governor approached him to see if he would be interested in becoming the university’s next president. Fine first told The Florida Standard, a conservative-leaning blog, that he was being encouraged to apply.

“I’ve not been looking for a position of any kind, let alone this,” Fine later told the Times/Herald in a text message on Tuesday. But it is “incredibly flattering to be asked and I owe it due consideration,” he said.

The university began its search for its next president in January, and it is scheduled to hold listening hearings on the matter next week. While a new state law prevents the public from knowing the identities of the presidential candidates until they hit the final stages, DeSantis and Fine are publicly chiming in midway through the process. FAU is part of the state university system and has more than 30,000 students enrolled at its main campus in Boca Raton and satellite locations.

“Rep. Fine has been a leader on education issues, and we think he’d be a good candidate for the role,” DeSantis’ communications director, Taryn Fenske, said in a text message to the Times/Herald.

The possibility of Fine’s leading FAU comes as DeSantis and Florida Republicans fight against what they perceive to be liberal bias in higher education and as faculty increasingly raise concerns about diversity initiatives and academic freedom being impacted by a highly politicized environment.

Fine, a Harvard University graduate and a longtime gaming executive who is now retired, has long been considered one of Tallahassee’s most vocal and controversial lawmakers.

Much of his focus in recent years has been on battles over cultural issues that align with DeSantis’ agenda, including sponsoring legislation to bar the teaching of critical race theory and ending treatment for transgender minors. This year, Fine is sponsoring legislation that would penalize venues that allow minors into drag performances in an effort to shield children from what some lawmakers consider “sexualized content.”

Fine, who has been entrusted by Republican legislative leaders to be the chairperson of key education budget committees, has drawn statewide attention for several other proposals.

He floated the possibility of shutting down the University of Central Florida in 2019 after officials were found to have misspent millions of dollars in state funds on construction projects. He proposed withholding millions of dollars from school districts that imposed strict mask mandates during the pandemic. He played a role in the state’s expansion of school vouchers in K-12. And pushed to require schools to address antisemitic behavior the same way they address racial discrimination.

When it comes to higher education, Fine has used his influence to single out state universities and faculty members to “prove the point” his bills are needed, a move that some faculty members have viewed as a strategy to restrict academic speech.

“There are limits to what is acceptable in the discussion of academic freedom,” Fine told the Times/Herald in December 2021 when sponsoring anti-critical race theory legislation. “There are constraints that we put on things, and we do not believe taxpayer money in the state of Florida should be used to advance this racist, evil ideology, which is as un-American as it comes.”

Aside from legislation, Fine drew attention in April 2022 for calling a Brevard County School Board member a “whore,” according to text messages obtained by Florida Today. The newspaper also reported that Fine tried to interfere with state funding for the Special Olympics and the city of West Melbourne, allegations that Fine disputed.

Andrew Gothard, the president of United Faculty of Florida, the state’s higher education union, said Fine’s record doesn’t match FAU’s.

“We think Rep. Fine will not be a good fit,” Gothard said. “We hope that the search committee looks elsewhere in determining the next president.”

The selection process

Last June, former FAU president John Kelly announced he would step down from the top role and become president emeritus “to complete certain projects.”

In September, the university’s board of trustees named an interim president: Stacy A. Volnick, who served as the chief operating officer and vice president for administrative affairs at the time.

FAU launched the search for its next president Jan. 26. The university’s board of trustees hired AGB Search, a D.C.-based firm, to lead the initiative. As part of the process, the search committee held two in-person listening sessions in February and will hold three more online next Monday.

It’s impossible to know whether Fine applied for the position. Lists of candidates applying to lead Florida’s public universities remain confidential until the final stage, in accordance with a state law passed last year. Supporters of that bill at the time claimed it would encourage more people to apply, while critics condemned it as a method to further politicize college campuses.

Ultimately, the 15-member search committee will decide. Its members include Alan Levine, a member of the board of governors, and Ava Parker, the president of Palm Beach State College.

Joshua Glanzer, an FAU spokesperson, said the presidential search committee is looking for candidates but is keeping their names secret for now.

“We are aware of the comments made recently by Rep. Fine about the presidency of Florida Atlantic University. Rep. Fine is a wonderful servant to his constituency and the state,” Glanzer said. “However, the FAU Presidential Search Committee will follow a strict process to determine FAU’s ninth president. We will follow the process in accordance with state law, and we will search far and wide.”

If Fine were to be selected, he would join several other former Republican lawmakers who have taken leadership roles in Florida’s higher education system.

Those include Sen. Ray Rodrigues, who was recently named chancellor of the state university system, former U.S. Sen. Ben Sasse, who now leads the University of Florida, and Richard Corcoran, the interim president at New College of Florida, who previously served as the state’s education commissioner and House speaker.