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FIU presidential search committee seems open to 'nontraditional' candidate

A building at Florida International University. Two rows of palm trees lead up to the building.
Kate Payne / WLRN
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Florida International University

The group responsible for handling the search for the next president of the state’s second largest public university seems open to choosing nontraditional candidates. Florida International University’s presidential search committee held its first meeting Tuesday, formally kicking off the hunt for the school’s next top leader.

Whoever the next president ends up being, the chair of FIU’s Board of Trustees Dean Colson says one quality is a must: they have to love Miami.

“I think there are people out there who are traditional and nontraditional that can fit the role, but they've got to love Miami,” Colson said. “If they don’t love Miami, it’s not going to work.”

On Tuesday morning, the Board of Trustees announced the 15 faculty, alumni and community members who will make up the search committee:

  • Cesar Alvarez, FIU Trustee
  • Deanne Butchey, FIU faculty
  • Valentina Casanova, FIU student
  • Carlos Duart, FIU Trustee
  • Eric Eikenberg, community leader
  • Patricia Frost, Florida Board of Governors member
  • Jill Granat, FIU alumna
  • Gerald Grant, Jr., FIU alumna
  • Barbara Lagoa, FIU alumna, community leader
  • Albert Maury, leader leader
  • Richard Olson, FIU faculty
  • Claudia Puig, FIU alumna
  • H.T. Smith, FIU faculty
  • Rebecca Lyn Toonkel, FIU faculty
  • Roger Tovar, FIU Trustee

When members were asked what they’re looking for in the next president, finance professor Deanne Butchey was one of the few who referenced experience in education.

“I’m not so much sure about experience in academics but definitely experience in education. And knowing what’s important to all of us here,” she said.

Instead, committee members focused on leadership skills, cultural fluency and political prowess.

Committee member Eric Eikenberg is a longtime political strategist and the CEO of The Everglades Foundation.

“Certainly leadership skills are a given when you're applying for this type of position, but leadership to the sense of understanding the dynamics of a state capitol where it is – it's intense. All these universities seeking dollars,” Eikenberg said.

Some members of FIU’s Board of Trustees, which will make the final decision on who the next president should be, also voiced support for considering candidates from outside of higher education.

During a board meeting Tuesday morning, Trustee Carlos Trujillo said the job description should be written as broadly as possible.

“It’s just making sure that criteria is as expansive as possible to draw in the largest amount of qualified applicants that necessarily might not come directly from just the halls of academia,” Trujillo said.

Trustee Roger Tovar, who is chairing the search committee, said he agreed “wholeheartedly.” So did R. William Funk, the consultant the school hired to support the search process.

“No particular industry or sector of the economy has a monopoly on leadership. There are excellent leaders in corporate America, not for profit, other not for profits that have the kind of leadership qualities that we’re looking for,” Funk said.

Funk’s firm has worked on more than 430 higher education searches, according to information provided to the Board of Trustees, including on the 2014 presidential search at Florida State University. Funk resigned from the job after the Faculty Senate declared it had “no confidence” in the process. The school ultimately chose then-Sen. John Thrasher, a powerful former speaker of the Florida House with no experience in educational leadership.

In the coming weeks and months, the search committee will work with the consultants to develop the position criteria and to recruit, vet and interview candidates. Much of the committee’s work will be held behind closed doors, due to a new exemption under the state’s Sunshine laws.

Under the exemption approved by Gov. Ron DeSantis last month, the identities of applicants will be kept confidential until late in the process, when the search committee picks its finalists.

Open government advocates have criticized the measure, at a time when political influence and partisan fights are increasingly holding sway over public education.

Funk argued that keeping the applicants’ names secret will help recruit a broader and more competitive pool.

“We think that will be certainly a breakthrough because we find that the very best candidates are often the most reluctant to go public about their candidacy,” Funk said.

The school is requiring search committee members to sign a nondisclosure agreement, which says it’s “imperative” that “applicants be afforded maximum confidentiality” to the extent required or permitted by law.

Going forward, the search committee and consultants will hold a round of meetings with stakeholders and a public forum on April 13 to hear from the campus community on what they’d like to see in their next leader.

Funk estimates the committee will conduct its first round of interviews with approximately eight to 10 candidates in June, after which the committee will pick its finalists to recommend to the Board of Trustees.

On-campus interviews with the finalists are expected to take place in July. Though the schedule is tentative and flexible, Funk said the next president could be in place in time for the start of the fall 2022 semester.

Kate Payne is WLRN's education reporter