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Florida Attorney General is asked to weigh in on FAU presidential search, as suspension drags on

 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 two months since the search for Florida Atlantic University’s new president was called off, under pressure from state officials who alleged “anomalies” in the process. The delay has left the school and its three finalist candidates in limbo — and there’s still no clear timeline of when the suspension will be lifted.

Ray Rodrigues, the Chancellor of the State University System of Florida, is defending his decision to halt the search and launch a full-scale investigation, headed by a state inspector general.

“It is imperative that we promote uniform application of our [regulations] to maintain integrity in all presidential searches,” Rodrigues said Friday at a meeting of the Florida Board of Governors, which oversees the state’s public universities.

“The interests of the Board of Governors lie beyond just the integrity of the search and selection process used in the FAU presidential search,” he added. “Rather, the Board of Governors is responsible for oversight and governance for the entire university system.”

The search was called off after Gov. Ron DeSantis' preferred candidate was not named a finalist.

FAU officials have defended their process, with one of the school’s search committee members and top donors saying he felt “personally outraged and slandered” by the claims made by Rodrigues.

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
Republican State Rep. Randy Fine is seen as Gov. Ron DeSantis' preferred candidate to be the next president of Florida Atlantic University. The job search was halted after Fine was not named as a finalist for the post.

No set timeline for search suspension

Back in July, Rodrigues penned a letter to FAU’s presidential search committee, claiming there were “anomalies” in the process and pressuring the committee’s chair, Brad Levine, to halt the search.

Rodrigues took issue with the search committee for conducting a straw poll to gauge top candidates, and a consulting firm for sending candidates a voluntary survey that included questions about their sexual orientation and gender identity — a practice which the firm maintains is standard procedure in its searches across the country.

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

At Friday’s BOG meeting, Board Vice Chair Eric Silagy questioned whether the demographic survey had any effect on the search process. The firm, AGB Search, has maintained that the questionnaire was voluntary and anonymous, and that any data was disaggregated from candidates’ applications. FAU says it had no knowledge that the questions were even being asked.

“So FAU had no information and therefore that information did not come into any … bearing with regards to the selection process?” Silagy asked Rodrigues.

“That is what they’ve said,” Rodrigues replied.

“Has that been contradicted by anybody else?” Silagy asked.

“We haven't completed the investigation,” Rodrigues said.

In his update to the board, Rodrigues didn’t give specific details on how long the suspension will last.

“There have been some delays because both AGB Search firm and FAU have retained outside counsel. We are now working with AGB and FAU through legal counsel, but nevertheless remain steadfast in completing a fair and thorough investigation,” Rodrigues said.

“I trust that we will soon have a comprehensive audit report of the facts and findings. That will then guide our next steps,” he added.

According to Levine, the FAU official and chair of the school’s Board of Trustees, the inspector general is expected to complete her investigation sometime in November, though she could finish her review sooner.

Board of Governors requests legal opinion from Florida AG

On Friday, the BOG voted to request a legal opinion from Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody on whether the committee’s straw poll may have run afoul of the state’s Sunshine Laws.

John Raoux
Associated Press
Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody.

That opinion could prompt the board to update its guidance to universities on how to conduct presidential searches.

Chair Levine has consistently defended the search process as robust, transparent and fair, noting that the school netted 63 candidates, including 12 current or former university or system presidents, eight executive vice presidents and five provosts, according to FAU. The school’s three finalists are:

  • Vice Admiral Sean Buck, superintendent of the United States Naval Academy
  • Michael Hartline, dean of the College of Business at Florida State University
  • Jose Sartarelli, former chancellor of the University of North Carolina at Wilmington

Speaking at FAU’s most recent Board of Trustees meeting, Levine said finding the school’s next president is a time-sensitive endeavor.

“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.”

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

Critics suspect that state officials stepped in to halt the search because Republican State Rep. Randy Fine, was not named a finalist. It’s not publicly known if Fine even applied for the job, because of a recently passed state law that largely keeps university presidential searches behind closed doors.

For months, faculty members have been raising the alarm about the prospect of Fine’s candidacy and the potential for political interference. An ally of DeSantis and a self-described “conservative firebrand," Fine was a co-sponsor of House Bill 1557, labeled by critics as the “Don’t Say Gay” law and has pledged to fight “wokeism across our state."

FAU, with its flagship campus in Boca Raton, serves more than 30,000 students and is known as the most diverse public university in the state, with 27% of students identifying as Hispanic and 20% as Black, as of fall 2022.

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

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