Keep searches for university presidents in the sunshine | Editorial
State legislators once again want to exempt the searches from public meetings and open records laws.
State Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, supports legislation that would add secrecy to the searches for college and university presidents. [SCOTT KEELER | Times]
State Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, supports legislation that would add secrecy to the searches for college and university presidents. [SCOTT KEELER | Times]
This article represents the opinion of the Tampa Bay Times Editorial Board.
Published Feb. 26, 2020|Updated Feb. 26, 2020

It’s that time of year again, when dark clouds over government-in-the-sunshine form in Tallahassee. And that means the Florida Legislature is renewing its annual effort to create more secrecy around the selection of presidents for the state’s colleges and universities. There still is absolutely no justification for sending a search process that needs more openness even further under ground.

This appears to be the most serious threat in years to openness surrounding the search process for college and university presidents. Similar bills that would create broad exemptions to public meetings and open records laws are ready for votes by the full House and Senate. With about two weeks left in the legislative session, it’s time for faculty members, students, the business community and the general public to tell legislators they want more openness, not less.

Sen. Manny Diaz, R-Hialeah, trotted out the same old arguments for secrecy Wednesday in the Senate Rules Committee, which passed the legislation on a 9-7 vote. He claimed seven recent searches for presidents at state universities did not attract a single president from a large university because they did not want their names to become public. Of course, there is no concrete evidence to support that claim.

Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, correctly noted there is not exactly full sunshine in the search process now. Universities typically hire search firms to oversee the initial application process, stalling on public records requests for the names of all applicants on legally suspect arguments that the public institution does not yet possess the documents. That gives savvy applicants time to withdraw their names from the search firm if it becomes clear they won’t at least make the list of finalists.

Yet Brandes illogically used the current situation to push for more secrecy and supported the legislation, SB 774. The bill would allow the names of applicants to be kept secret and only require the names of the finalists to become public 21 days before a school’s board of trustees publicly interviews them or hires one. That is a prescription for secret shenanigans that would not serve the state or the taxpayers funding these colleges and universities.

How would the public know whether the pool of applicants was diverse? How would they know whether the top job at the University of South Florida or the University of Florida really attracted quality candidates? What would prevent the secret selection of just one finalist so every other name remained secret? How would they know if the fix was in from the start to pick a politically well-connected favorite over more qualified applicants?

Too many legislators brag that the state’s universities are tops in the nation, then complain that public records and open meetings laws prevent those universities from attracting top leaders. The push for secrecy is an insult to successful presidents such as Kent Fuchs at the University of Florida and John Thrasher at Florida State University. It tells USF president Steven Currall, who has been on the job less than a year and makes a good impression, that legislators think the university could have done better.

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The answer to too much secrecy at public institutions is not more secrecy. Sen. Tom Lee, R-Thonotosassa, unsuccessfully urged the Senate Rules Committee Wednesday to kill the legislation and warned, "I think this is going to embarrass us.'' Yes, it will.

Open government should not be a partisan issue, but as a last resort Senate Democrats have enough votes to prevent this legislation from passing the full Senate by the required two-thirds vote. That may be what it takes to prevent the Legislature from embarrassing itself and to keep the searches for college and university presidents at least in the partial sunshine.

Editorials are the institutional voice of the Tampa Bay Times. The members of the Editorial Board are Times Chairman and CEO Paul Tash, Editor of Editorials Tim Nickens, and editorial writers Elizabeth Djinis, John Hill and Jim Verhulst. Follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinion news