Guest Column
Why secret searches for Florida university presidents are just a bad idea | Column
We study the issue, and secret searches have no benefits and often work out poorly.
Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, has sponsored the Senate version of a Florida bill that would keep confidential names and other information that could identify applicants for university president openings, though information about finalists would be disclosed at the tail end of searches.
Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, has sponsored the Senate version of a Florida bill that would keep confidential names and other information that could identify applicants for university president openings, though information about finalists would be disclosed at the tail end of searches. [ MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE | Times ]
Published Jan. 28, 2022

The University of South Florida and the University of Florida are two of the four Florida public universities in the hunt for new presidents, a process that should be open, both for philosophical and practical reasons. We have yet to identify any empirical evidence that supports the claim that “secret searches” result in hiring the best candidates — and we’ve been studying this for 10 years.

Judith Wilde
Judith Wilde [ Provided ]

And yet, the Florida Legislature is once again considering bills that would largely exempt presidential searches from the Sunshine Law. Why? The Senate version claims that “if potential applicants fear the possibility of losing their current jobs as a consequence of attempting to progress along their chosen career path … failure to have these safeguards in place could have a chilling effect on the number and quality of applicants.”

We doubt that. In fact, many of the presidents who have failed early in their terms were hired in searches where faculty had little or no opportunity to meet finalists.

James Finkelstein
James Finkelstein [ GEORGE MASON UNIVERSITY | Provided ]

UF, USF, the University of North Florida and Florida International — the four who are looking for new leaders — enroll nearly 60 percent of the state university system’s students and account for nearly half of the expenditures of its $14.3 billion budget.

Two of these presidents are leaving under storm clouds. The sudden resignation of the FIU president is reported as being related to inappropriate behavior. University of Florida President Kent Fuchs recently has faced widespread criticism for his handling of an academic freedom controversy.

USF President Steve Currall resigned after just two years, saying that “the intensity of the past two years has put a strain on my health and my family…” At North Florida, after three years, the president transitioned to become the CEO of UNF MedNexus, an initiative to train health care professionals that launched during his presidency.

Executive search firms control more than 90 percent of the presidential search market. Commenting on the USF presidential search, one search consultant told the Tampa Bay Times, “The biggest challenge will be Florida’s open search laws.” Yet, when pressed to provide evidence of a president being fired for applying elsewhere, consultants say that they cannot break confidentiality.

Even less credible are claims made by candidates themselves. Several presidents have told us that they never would have applied for the position had their names been made public at any stage of the search process. We are skeptical of such after-the-fact statements.

What are the potential outcomes if an applicant is named publicly? If offered the job and accepted, no harm, no foul. If they apply, but are not a finalist, it is unlikely anyone will ever know. If named as a finalist and their current institution is pleased with their achievements, it is likely that the governing board will offer incentives to stay, as happened recently at Montana State. We have reviewed more than 300 presidential contracts. Only one included a penalty if the president left early to take another comparable position; none have included language that would prohibit a president from pursuing other opportunities or threaten termination for doing so.

Let’s consider a few actual cases: Jim Gallogly at the University of Oklahoma lasted 11 months; Mark Kennedy, the University of Colorado system, 2 years; F. King Alexander, at Oregon State University, 9 months; or Jim Johnsen, sole finalist for the University of Wisconsin System. Each stated a different reason for leaving, but for each there was controversy during the hiring process. In some of these cases, there have been indications of a lack of due diligence resulting in too little information to make an informed hiring decision.

So, if there are more short-term presidents with secret searches, and if there are few consequences for presidents who apply for another presidency, what is the real reason for the increasing number of secret searches? Two possibilities come to mind. First, search firms can make themselves seem essential to the process of hiring a new president. Second, governing boards with little experience in hiring a president are easily swayed by the executive search firms’ descriptions of the best way to move forward.

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Finally, we note that according to the American Council on Education, 75 percent of presidents serve in one presidency only and another 19 percent hold a total of two presidencies. Thus, seeking a president from among those who are presidents may be a fool’s errand. An open search, based on a good job description, may be a better way to identify someone for Florida’s open presidencies.

Judith Wilde is research professor and James Finkelstein is professor emeritus in the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University. Their research focuses on presidential searches and contracts.