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As politics loom large, FAU seeks a president 'committed to academic freedom' and diversity

 The Florida Atlantic University campus in Boca Raton.
Alex Dolce
Florida Atlantic University
Florida Atlantic University campus in Boca Raton.

The next president of Florida Atlantic University should defend academic freedom, embrace diversity, and lead with compassion and respect. That’s what FAU’s presidential search committee is looking for, according to a draft job description for the top post.

The committee of faculty, donors and community leaders want someone who can take FAU to the next level. Preferably, they are seeking someone who has a terminal degree as well as academic and senior leadership experience at a top university.

But some professors have raised concerns that the search process could be overtaken by politics — after Republican State Rep. Randy Fine, a self-described “conservative firebrand”, was reportedly approached by Gov. Ron DeSantis' office about the job.

Fine is a former casino executive with no leadership experience in academia. He’s a self-proclaimed “conservative firebrand” and was a co-sponsor of House Bill 1557, labeled by critics as the “Don’t Say Gay” law, and he sponsored the House version of the “Protection of Children” Act, a measure aimed at preventing kids from attending drag shows.

At a search committee meeting earlier this month, board member and FAU donor Dick Schmidt said he wants to see an emphasis on “academic experience and ability to deal with the academic faculty.”

“I think starting out behind the eight ball with the faculty pretty much aligned against you is not a good place to start a new presidency,” Schmidt said.

Rep. Randy Fine, R-South Brevard County, during a special session, Wednesday, May 19, 2021, in Tallahassee, Fla. (AP Photo/Steve Cannon)
Steve Cannon/AP
FR127919 AP
Rep. Randy Fine, R-South Brevard County, during a special session, Wednesday, May 19, 2021, in Tallahassee, Fla. (AP Photo/Steve Cannon)

The search committee, along with the private consulting firm AGB Search, has been in the process of developing the presidential profile — a detailed job description that will set the tone for prospective applicants.

According to a draft version of the profile, FAU’s next president will be “committed to academic freedom, maintaining an effective shared governance model, and continuing to recruit and retain an enthusiastic, diverse, and professional team of administration, faculty, and staff."

The document doesn’t clearly define minimum qualifications, but outlines goals and aspirations for the next president and for FAU, and notes that individuals with academic and senior leadership experience at “aspirational colleges and universities” are “strongly encouraged to apply."

READ MORE: Anxiety among professors as DeSantis pushes 'conservative firebrand' for FAU president

“If we're going to get to a top 100 school, it's nice to have someone who gives confidence to all of us that we have someone who's been there, been at that sort of university and been in a leadership position there,” said Daniel Gropper, Dean of FAU’s College of Business and a search committee member.

Additionally, candidates should be committed to “embracing, embodying, advocating for the institution’s collective values," and should exhibit “integrity, collegiality, trust, support of scholarship, and enthusiasm."

“In all,” the document reads, the next president should be “a leader who shows the courage and conviction necessary to effect decisions with compassion and care.”

FAU's ethnic diversity

For Kim Dunn, the president of FAU’s Faculty Senate and a member of the search committee and the school’s Board of Trustees, that includes celebrating the university’s ethnic diversity. With about 27% percent of the student body identifying as Hispanic and 20% as Black, FAU is one of the most diverse universities in the nation.

“One of the most common comments that I heard was the pride we take in our diversity in being a Hispanic-Serving Institution and also our social mobility … accomplishments and awards,” Dunn said. “Those are things that this institution takes a lot of pride in.”

Diversity, equity and inclusion efforts and teachings about race, identity and history have been under fire at Florida’s public universities, as Gov. Ron DeSantis threatens to defund the initiatives, which he claims are a form of liberal indoctrination.

It’s up to the FAU Board of Trustees (BOT) — which is largely made up of gubernatorial appointees and members appointed by the state’s Board of Governors (BOG) — to finalize the presidential profile. The board is scheduled to take a vote during a virtual meeting on April 25. At that point, the search process will officially begin.

While FAU’s presidential search committee will work with the firm AGB Search to recruit applicants for the position and vet them, it is the BOT that ultimately will select a group of finalists. The trustees’ chosen nominee is subject to confirmation by the BOG.

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