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It's been more than a month since FAU's presidential search was suspended. Tensions are flaring

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

It’s been more than a month since the search for Florida Atlantic University’s next president was suspended, under pressure from state officials. As the new school year approaches without a permanent leader in place, tensions are flaring among some university officials.

Things got heated Tuesday, during the first meeting of FAU’s Board of Trustees since the search was halted.

Kicking off the meeting, Chair Brad Levine defended the school’s search process, which included months of meetings, public outreach and stakeholder engagement. The search netted 63 candidates, including 12 current or former university or system presidents, eight executive vice presidents and five provosts, according to FAU.

READ MORE: FAU faculty, top donor outraged by suspension of presidential search

“I am both proud of and grateful for the search committee's efforts,” Levine said. “We feel strongly that our search complied with all legal requirements. And we would like to resume our search as soon as possible.”

FAU's Board Chair Brad Levine and Vice Chair Barbara Feingold
FAU's Board Chair Brad Levine and Vice Chair Barbara Feingold.

In his comments, Levine name-dropped two other members of the search committee — Vice Chair Barbara Feingold and state Board of Governors member Alan Levine (no relation to Brad), saying that in closed-door meetings, they had supported the search committee’s process for reviewing candidates and winnowing the field.

Board Vice Chair Barbara Feingold said Levine should have left her name out of it.

“I resent the fact that you've been talking for all of us,” Feingold told him. “I am an angry member of the Board of Trustees. Because this was not handled well from the very beginning.”

“There are other people in the community, in the state, involved with the state, local people, elected officials, and people on this board … they're not happy with you not presenting the truth,” Barbara Feingold said.”

“Trustee Feingold, thank you for your comments,” Levine told her. “I would appreciate going forward that you refer to me as Chair Levine.”

Feingold and her late husband Jeffrey have been major donors to the university and supporters of Gov. Ron DeSantis, who gave the eulogy at Mr. Feingold’s memorial service in 2021.

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.

In 2022, Barbara Feingold donated $10,000 to a campaign committee for State Rep. Randy Fine, who is seen as DeSantis’ preferred pick to be the next president of FAU, despite having no experience as an administrator in higher education.

After Fine was not one of the three finalists chosen by the school’s search committee, state officials alleged there were “anomalies” in the process and pressured FAU to suspend it while a state inspector general investigates.  

State officials questioned whether a straw poll by the search committee constituted a secret vote, and ridiculed the university's search firm for a voluntary survey on candidates' demographic identities.

University officials are cooperating with the investigation, Levine said, handing over "thousands of pages of requested materials."

University stakeholders speak out against political interference

Almost a dozen FAU professors, alumni and donors spoke out at the meeting on Tuesday, urging the board to stand up to political interference.

Anthony Anderson is a former Martin County School Board Member and a 2017 recipient of FAU’s Distinguished Alumni award.

“We're living in a highly politicized world today. And it's just so sad. It's almost like a wildfire. And I just wish that somehow the wildfire will stop at FAU. And let us resume normality,” Anderson told the board. “Speak up. Hold your ground. Do the right thing no matter what it costs you.”

Rebecca Lautar, an associate dean in FAU’s College of Arts & Letters, became emotional as she spoke about the importance of the public institution.

The school is seen as a national model for promoting social mobility, helping catapult first generation college students and those from low income backgrounds into the middle class.

“We're being told we have to wait for the new president before many of our initiatives can move forward … everything here has come to a standstill,” Lautar said. “I am ashamed at how FAU is being displayed in my community.”

State investigation could continue for months

So far, none of FAU’s three finalists have dropped out of the running for the top job — though university stakeholders fear they might bail as the suspension drags on.

At the same time, some donors say they’re rethinking whether to continue their investments in the school.

“Donors are having a hard time right now,” said Maurice Plough, a former member of the FAU Foundation Board of Directors. “It's very hard to support a business that you don't know who's really driving the ship forward.”

It’s not clear how long the search will remain on ice. According to Chair Levine, the inspector general is expected to present her findings to the state Board of Governors sometime in November, though she could finish her review sooner.

In the meantime, Trustee Linda Stoch had one last reminder for her colleagues before the meeting concluded.

“We all serve at the pleasure of the governor,” Stoch said. “All of us.”

READ MORE: FAU names 3 finalists for president's job. Randy Fine isn't among them

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