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  1. Opinion

Editorial: Embrace new rules for university president searches

The Board of Governors that oversees the 12 public universities has proposed a smart statewide rule that would make presidential searches more uniform, set minimum standards and require a reasonable level of openness.
The Board of Governors that oversees the 12 public universities has proposed a smart statewide rule that would make presidential searches more uniform, set minimum standards and require a reasonable level of openness.
Published May 30, 2016

Searches for new leaders at Florida's public universities have been messy affairs over the years. There have been secret power plays by politically connected candidates eager to become university presidents. Governors from both political parties have intervened. Search committees have gone underground. Too often, searches for the next university president have been more about power politics than quality academics, undermining efforts to attract the best and brightest from around the nation to elevate higher education in an underperforming mega-state.

Now the Board of Governors that oversees the 12 public universities has proposed a smart statewide rule that would make presidential searches more uniform, set minimum standards and require a reasonable level of openness. The new regulation, which the board will consider in June, is the product of work led by board member Ned Lautenbach of Naples and a committee that included trustees from every public university. That consensus-building should bring some buy-in on every campus and reassure potential candidates for university president that the search process will be uniform, fair and aboveboard.

Among the key provisions of the proposal:

• Standard search committees. When there is an opening, the university's Board of Trustees would appoint a search committee with a maximum of 15 members that includes a member of the Board of Governors and at least three trustees. The committee also should include faculty members and students — and none of the members could report directly to the president. That should reduce the opportunity to stack search committees for a favored candidate, and there is still flexibility to appoint alumni, donors and members of the community.

• Clear procedures. Universities would be required to obtain an executive compensation analysis of salary, benefits and bonuses that considers the outgoing president's compensation, presidents at peer institutions and market trends. If a university uses a consultant to help with the search, the private firm's responsibilities are outlined. Search committees will submit an unranked list of more than two qualified applicants to the Board of Trustees for consideration, although there is a loophole for "exceptional circumstances" that should be closed or tightened.

• Openness. Search committees would be required to create a page on the university's website with a link on the home page to notices, agendas and materials for the committee. There also would be updated lists of applicants and avenues for public comment. The emphasis on transparency is particularly helpful as state legislators regularly file bills aimed at making the application process secret, arguing that the state's public records laws make it difficult to attract quality candidate from other states. That is an insult to the incumbent university presidents, and the process should remain open.

There has been too much mischief and political intrigue over the years in searches for new presidents at the University of Florida, Florida State University and elsewhere. A lieutenant governor, Frank Brogan, was handed the presidency of Florida Atlantic University on a silver platter. A powerful FSU alum, former House Speaker T.K. Wetherell, became president of Florida State. And two years ago, former House Speaker John Thrasher became FSU president after the search committee at one point paused the process and tried to interview only Thrasher, triggering a backlash from students and faculty.

The proposed rules to make the searches for university presidents uniform and transparent are a positive step, and the Board of Governors should adopt them in June. Clarity about procedures and openness should attract more quality candidates, and new university presidents can start from a position of strength rather than defending how they got the job.