Should public university presidential searches be shielded from the public?
A nearly decade-long effort to close the search process for Florida’s public university presidents is back again. The proposal has been tried and failed several times over, despite opposition from faculty, staff, and open government advocates.
"This evidence, these facts indicate the Sunshine Law is not hindering our ability to hire the best qualified academic individuals and professionals in the country. I might also add, Florida’s education system, which has a top-ranking institution,…also support this claim,” ACLU of Florida lobbyist Rich Templin told the Senate’s Education Committee Tuesday, kicking off a likely session-long debate over whether to close the public university president search process from public view.
The proposal, SB 520, states it would grant anonymity to university presidential applicants, with names of finalists being revealed 21 days before interviews take place, or when an offer of employment is given. The proposed change is an effort that’s gone on for at least the past eight years as the arguments for and against it have remained unchanged.
“One of the things we’ve heard from boards that do the selections for public universities is that they believe they are not getting the broadest pool of applicants because employees of other institutions outside the state of Florida are fearful of applying—because they know their application will be made available to their current employer,” said Republican Sen. Jeff Brandes, who is sponsoring this year’s legislative effort.
Similar complaints have long been raised by the firms hired to recruit candidates to the positions, and by the political appointees of the universities’ governing boards. Long opposed to a closed search process are organizations like the Florida Education Association—the state’s largest teachers union as well as its partner group, the United Faculty of Florida, which represents faculty.
This year’s version of the closed presidential search bill comes as the University of Florida gears up to search for a new leader. That effort begins as UF continues to face political controversy over the hire of the state’s surgeon general to a tenured post at the behest of a politically connected trustee; and the school’s initial refusal to let three tenured professors testify as expert witnesses in a voting rights case amid fears of angering the governor.
The last school to secure a new president was Florida State University. Its new president Richard McCullough previously served as Vice Provost for Research at Harvard. The finalist pool included high-profile leaders at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, Tulane University, internal candidates, local lobbyists and state education commissioner Richard Corcoran—who was ultimately rejected over the objection of several trustees with close ties to Gov. Ron DeSantis. Under the legislative proposal, the public may not have known who any of the candidates were until an employment offer was made, and even then, only one name would have been released.
“The purpose of the bill is to ensure we get the broadest pool of applicants available to Florida’s great public institutions,” Brandes said.
Legislative support and opposition to the proposal don’t break neatly on partisan lines, as demonstrated by Democratic Sen. Shevrin Jones’ mixed messaging during the bill’s first hearing Tuesday.
“I hear it from both sides. I hear the argument from both sides,” said Jones.
Jones is opposing the bill for now due to concerns over whether it will limit public input in the selection process. Still, he acknowledges his position is likely to change.
“But I tend to vote for it once it gets to the floor…“so I’m going to [oppose] that today and then I’m going to talk to you to get clarity from you on how you interpret that language,” said Jones speaking to Brandes during the committee meeting.
Last year, the measure came close to passing but didn't get approval on the Senate floor. Now, Sen. Brandes is determined to see it get across the finish line.
The measure has put public higher education and open government advocates on guard: university trustees are appointed by the governor, and by the university systems board of governors—whose members are also appointed by the governor. A closed search process may afford state university boards more power and leeway in choosing presidents at a time when everything from appointments to leadership positions and key hires is growing ever more political and partisan.
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