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FIU gets community feedback on who the school's next president should be

Jessica Bakeman

Some want a leader who’s a South Florida native. Others want an outsider’s perspective. Dozens of people weighed in during campus forums this week on who the next president of Florida International University should be.

The school’s new leader will step in at a pivotal time. FIU has grown rapidly in recent years and is among the top ten largest public universities in the country.

The school has also been climbing in national rankings and has earned a reputation of creating opportunities for students of color and those from low income backgrounds.

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Some hope the school’s sixth president will break barriers. Since opening its doors in 1972, all of FIU’s top leaders have been men.

FIU ombudsperson Sofia Trelles read comments submitted online during a campus listening session on Wednesday.

“We need someone who is not an FIU insider. Fresh look and perspective. Someone who is a woman or a person of color. Someone who will have a team in place that will recognize the hard work of our staff, administrators through experience in education,” she said.

FIU serves a diverse population, with 61% of students identifying as Hispanic, 15% as white, 13% as Black and 4% as Asian or Pacific Islander. According to university data, students from more than 142 nations attend the school.

“We have an opportunity to bring a president who students can see themselves in,” Trelles said, reading another online comment.

Dean Colson, who chairs FIU’s Board of Trustees, says he’s looking for a diverse pool of candidates too.

“I would be disappointed if ... the search committee sent back to the Board of Trustees five white males,” Colson said. “I want the best leader for FIU. That's all I want.”

Colson is not on the 15 member presidential search committee, which will recruit, review and vet a pool of potential candidates. But it’s Colson and the rest of the trustees who will interview the finalists and pick their top choice, subject to approval by the Florida Board of Governors.

Officials involved in the search process say they’ll be looking for prospective candidates inside and outside of academia.

Speaking at the community forum Wednesday, Michelle Horvath, assistant dean of students, said she thinks a nontraditional leader could be successful.

“I do think we need to look for somebody who might be outside of higher ed, who's able to innovate, who's able to make changes,” Horvath said.

The school is on the search for a new leader after former President Mark Rosenberg resigned in January, following allegations that he sexually harassed a younger female staffer.

Under a new public records exemption, much of the search process for the next president will be conducted in secret. The identities of prospective candidates must be kept confidential until finalists are selected.

FIU’s search consultant Bill Funk has said the largely closed door process can make it more appealing for qualified but discreet candidates to apply. Critics worry it will allow for more political interference.

From the politicization of public education to staffing shortages to an affordable housing crisis, the new president will inherit challenges that extend far beyond the confines of FIU’s campus.

“Miami is robust and it's vibrant and people are coming. But people can't afford to live here anymore, right?” Horvath said. “I do think we need to think about, how do we innovate so that we attract talent?”

Leanne Wells, associate director for Faculty Leadership and Success, urged the committee to pick candidates who would be staunch defenders of academic freedom.

“Faculty actually feel attacked right now. So it's not so much faculty are concerned that somebody is contacting somebody on the Board of Governors … or Board of Trustees and influencing that — they're feeling attacked by legislation,” Wells said.

Colson acknowledged the next president will have to “walk that tightrope” of balancing the intellectual integrity and independence of the school without "offending the people that fund us" in the state legislature.

“This is one of the hardest jobs in the country, in my opinion. Being a university president, in general, is an extraordinarily difficult job,” Colson said.

“You’re going to scare people,” quipped Roger Tovar, chair of the presidential search committee.

“It's a tough, tough job,” Tovar added. “But if you find a person that wants to serve, that wants to make a difference, that wants to leave a legacy — this is a great job to have.”

Kate Payne is WLRN's Education Reporter. Reach her at kpayne@wlrnnews.org
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