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United Faculty of Florida union blasts the pause on FAU's presidential search

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

The United Faculty of Florida union is pushing back on a decision by the chancellor of the state’s university system to halt Florida Atlantic University’s search for a new president.

In a news release this week, the faculty union called on Chancellor Ray Rodrigues to allow FAU’s search to “continue unhindered or to immediately resign from his position.”

The FAU president search was wrapping up, with three final candidates identified last week, before Rodrigues on Friday notified a top official at the school that he was recommending the search be put on pause.

The university subsequently suspended the search and canceled public forums that were scheduled for this week, in which the finalists were slated to visit campus and speak with students, faculty and staff.

In a letter to FAU Board of Trustees Chairman Brad Levine, Rodrigues pointed to what he called “anomalies that have been alleged” in the school’s search.

Rodrigues’ letter said that members of the FAU Presidential Search Committee during a “prior meeting” participated in a straw poll to rank their top preferences from a list of dozens of candidates. Rodrigues said that the meeting was held “in the shade,” a reference to Florida’s Sunshine law that requires open government meetings. He also pointed to a state law that deals with college and university president searches.

The 2022 law provides a public-records exemption for certain parts of president searches, including shielding the identities of applicants from the public until finalists for the job are determined. Under the law, a “complete recording must be made of any portion of a meeting which is closed” for the purpose of concealing personal identifying information about applicants.

Rodrigues, a Republican former state senator, was a sponsor of the 2022 measure. His letter to the trustees’ chairman said that the way the straw poll was conducted might have conflicted with the law.

“Holding a straw poll, that is tantamount to a written vote that is not disclosed, may run afoul of this provision,” Rodrigues wrote.

Rodrigues also said that “at least one candidate” was asked on a questionnaire “if his sexual orientation was ‘queer’ and whether he was ‘a male or transgender male.’” Without naming the anonymous candidate, Rodrigues also said the candidate was asked about his preferred pronouns in a separate survey.

Rodrigues called the questions “wholly irrelevant, inappropriate and potentially illegal,” citing guidance from the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The chancellor also called into question whether AGB Search, a firm hired by the university to assist in finding a new leader, “withheld material information” from the search committee.

“Members of the search committee were not informed that these questions were being asked of candidates,” Rodrigues said in the letter.

But the faculty union blasted the decision to pause the search, questioning the reasons put forth by Rodrigues.

“It is clear from his letter requesting a pause in FAU’s presidential search that Chancellor Rodrigues is grasping at any meager, partisan straw he can find in order to gin up false cause to undermine a search process that — up until now — has been both fair and collaborative, drawing three highly qualified candidates,” the faculty union said in Monday’s release.

The finalists, named by the FAU search committee July 5, were Michael Hartline, who has been dean of Florida State University’s College of Business since 2016; Vice Admiral Sean Buck, superintendent of the Naval Academy since 2019; and Jose Sartarelli, who served as chancellor of the University of North Carolina Wilmington from 2015 through last year.

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

Rodrigues wrote that FAU and the Board of Governors have a “shared interest in securing a presidential candidate procured from a sound search and selection process.” He also thanked the three finalists for applying for the post.

“Please convey our deep appreciation to the finalists for their interest in leading FAU and our high degree of respect for their qualifications,” Rodrigues’ letter said.

Rodrigues said that Board of Governors Chairman Brian Lamb agreed with the recommendation to pause the search, and that putting it on hold would allow the Board of Governors’ staff to “obtain the facts around these concerns and other potential anomalies.”

A spokeswoman for FAU told the News Service of Florida Monday that the three candidates will remain in the running, but did not indicate whether the entire search would have to restart from scratch.

“The university is eager to resume the search as soon as possible and the three finalists will remain a part of the selection process,” said Lisa Metcalf, FAU’s senior media relations director for university news.

Meanwhile, the faculty union also criticized the chancellor keeping anonymous the names of the candidates who allegedly reported having been asked questions about things such as their preferred pronouns.

“By relying upon ‘anonymous’ reporting as reason to insert himself in this search process, the chancellor shows that he is unable to separate his political affiliations from his solemn duty to serve the needs of Florida’s university system,” the union’s statement said.

Copyright 2023 WUSF 89.7

Ryan Dailey is a reporter/producer for WFSU/Florida Public Radio. After graduating from Florida State University, Ryan went into print journalism working for the Tallahassee Democrat for five years. At the Democrat, he worked as a copy editor, general assignment and K-12 education reporter.
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