USF presidential search should be in the sunshine

BRONTE WITTPENN   |   Times
Students walk into the Marshall Student Center located on the University of South Florida campus in Tampa in June 2018.
BRONTE WITTPENN | Times Students walk into the Marshall Student Center located on the University of South Florida campus in Tampa in June 2018.
Published March 7
Updated March 8

The University of South Florida is one of the biggest economic engines in the Tampa Bay area. The next president of the major research university with three campuses, 50,000 students and 15,000 employees will play a key role in shaping the region's economy, national competitiveness and quality of life. This public university has a public mission, and the selection process for hiring the next president should be entirely in public.

Yet that obligation is lost on those running the search for the successor to USF President Judy Genshaft, who is retiring this year. As the Tampa Bay Times' Megan Reeves has reported, USF is approaching the deadline to name the finalists for president but the public is in the dark about who is being seriously pursued.

Though a USF trustee announced in January he had reviewed more than 30 resumes, the university has released names only of 15 candidates who appear to be long shots or unqualified. Several Tampa Bay officials, including St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman and state Sen. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg, have appropriately called for more openness.

Consultants from Greenwood/Asher & Associates told search committee members last fall they must tread lightly given Florida’s public records laws. Otherwise, they claimed, high-quality candidates would be less likely to apply for fear of losing their current jobs if their names became public. The committee is responsible for delivering names of at least three finalists to the USF Board of Trustees this month, but it has not met since November. Instead, all recruitment and correspondence with potential candidates is being done in private by Greenwood. It regularly passes information to USF trustee Les Muma, who heads the search committee. Muma called it a “slip of the tongue” when he announced in January that Greenwood had provided him with “30 to 40 resumes” to review. Muma said none of the people he and Greenwood discussed have actually applied. "You’ve got to keep it quiet until they’re ready to go public," he said.

USF Board of Trustees Chairman Brian Lamb says the university has the right to shield prospective applicants engaged with the consultant. "The public is aware of what they should know at this point,” Lamb told the Times.

That insults the public that supports the public university. USF isn't the first university in Florida to hide behind hired recruiters to keep presidential searches out of the sunshine. But the practice clearly violates Florida’s public records laws (which is why the Legislature regularly tries to change the law with regard to presidential searches). USF is sending a terrible message about openness and accountability to the next leader of this growing institution, and it is leaving the public clueless about the quality of the pool of applicants and the extensiveness of the search.

Florida law is clear: The search process is subjected to public records laws, whether the records are generated directly through the university or a consultant working on its behalf. The Florida Supreme Court ruled on that point in the case of Shevin v. Byron Harless, decided in 1980. Florida courts have repeatedly upheld the common-sense principle that public agencies cannot evade public records laws by farming out their responsibilities to private contractors.

USF’s insistence on secrecy undermines the integrity of its search for a new president. Is the fix already in for a favored candidate?

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