Records Exemption Sought For Florida Higher Ed Searches
TALLAHASSEE --- A proposal that would provide a public-records exemption for “personal identifying information” about people applying to become state college and university presidents is advancing in the Florida Senate.
Sen. Jeff Brandes, a St. Petersburg Republican who is sponsoring the measure (SB 220), said it is aimed at attracting “the broadest pool of applicants” for the jobs. The Senate Governmental Oversight and Accountability Committee approved the proposal Wednesday in a 4-2, party-line vote.
Brandes said the proposal looks to address an issue stemming from Florida’s “broad public-records laws,” or Sunshine Law, that gives the public access to applicant information. The bill would exempt from public view initial applicants’ records, but information about finalists would be “no longer confidential and exempt,” and meetings with final candidates would be public.
“What occurs today is, and the way that most universities deal with this issue of sunshine, is they go out and hire an executive search firm, or headhunter, which collects all the applications,” Brandes said, adding that the process is “completely done at the firm level.”
“Ultimately, maybe only one or two members of that (university) board will have access to a discussion with the headhunting group … most of this is occurring outside the sunshine today, because it happens through a privately held headhunting firm,” Brandes said.
Proponents of the measure say it would help attract more applicants who might be hesitant to put themselves up for consideration because of concerns about jeopardizing their current positions if it became known they were applying.
“These individuals don’t want their institution to know that they’ve applied for a job, so they’re not willing to apply for a job in Florida because of the way our records work. So they apply through a headhunter, which again keeps all the records confidential,” Brandes said.
Opponents of the bill said Wednesday they share concerns about private firms’ involvement in the presidential search proces, but don’t think the Senate proposal is a solution.
Pamela Marsh, executive director of the First Amendment Foundation, took issue with the proposal not specifying a set number of finalists that institutions must consider in searches.
“I don’t believe there’s anything in this bill that eliminates the headhunting firms from continuing in this process. They do shroud the process in secrecy to some point, but to limit by state law the number of finalists to no number, so we could have just one finalist, really shrouds the whole process in even greater darkness,” Marsh said.
Brandes contended institutions are presented with very narrow numbers of applicants in the current process, because the private firms are vetting candidates without supervision from the schools’ boards.
Marsh also said making applicants’ information secret until a finalist is determined would preclude the public from knowing “how diverse the pool of applicants really was,” exempting details like race, ethnicity and gender.
(Disclosure: The News Service of Florida is a member of the First Amendment Foundation.)
Representatives of the United Faculty of Florida also oppose the measure.
The president of the union’s Florida State University chapter, Matthew Lata, echoed concerns about private search firms, but described an ongoing search at the university as “open.” FSU is in the process of replacing President John Thrasher, who has announced his retirement.
“At FSU right now we’re in the middle of a search, and so far it’s been open, we’ve been able to follow it, we’ve been able to have appropriate input, and that keeps us all on the same page,” Lata told the panel.
Karen Morian, president of the United Faculty of Florida, said she is concerned the measure “doesn’t protect a quality candidate from the sunshine, it merely protects the lesser candidates from the sunshine.”
“You have the contention that we would get better applicants if people were shielded from the sunshine. If someone’s not comfortable applying in the sunshine, are they going to be comfortable doing the university’s or college’s business in the sunshine, as required by law?” Morian asked.
But Senate Governmental Oversight and Accountability Chairman Ray Rodrigues, an Estero Republican who is co-sponsoring the bill, argued that part of the measure requiring a three-week period between determining finalists and making an offer to one candidate would introduce more transparency to institutions’ search processes.
“That 21 days is more transparency than I believe we’ve had in any search in the state of Florida in the last 20 years. Because if you go back and look, what typically happens is the headhunting firm brings forth the … finalists, and within a week, usually, the president is selected,” Rodrigues said.
Rodrigues, who works as director of community relations for Florida Gulf Coast University, said he has seen two presidential searches at the school during his tenure. He said the current situation “leaves a handful of business days for the public to vet the finalists.”
The Senate measure, which passed the Education Committee last month, needs approval from the Rules Committee before it can go to the full Senate. It would go into effect in July if it passes during the 2021 legislative session, which begins March 2.
A similar House bill (HB 997), sponsored by Rep. Sam Garrison, R-Fleming Island, was filed this week and has not been scheduled for a hearing.
Similar bills have failed to pass in previous legislative sessions.