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UF president discusses new campus in West Palm Beach, reacts to Senate bill on presidential applicants

University of Florida President Kent Fuchs (right) and West Palm Beach Mayor Keith James at the annual West Palm Beach Development and Investment Forum, discussing UF campus plans in the city. February 8, 2022
Wilkine Brutus
University of Florida President Kent Fuchs (right) and West Palm Beach Mayor Keith James (left) at the annual West Palm Beach Development and Investment Forum, discussing UF campus plans in the city, on Feb. 8, 2022.

University of Florida President Dr. Kent Fuchs is in favor of a proposed state Senate bill that could shield public information about applicants who are trying to become college and university presidents.

During the annual West Palm Beach Development and Investment Forum, Fuchs told WLRN that SB 520, the public records exemption bill, makes sense because it allows a presidential search committee to vet potential candidates and “ask questions of a potential candidate even before they formally apply.”

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“I think it is important in the very final stage, when that committee narrows it down to this large potential pool to a set of finalists, that that be public,” Fuchs said. "But the initial stage, when you’re trying to get people to apply, you don’t need the broad public there. You need a really excellent search committee.”

Faculty leaders and other critics who oppose the exemption measure say it violates Florida’s Sunshine Law and eliminates public transparency about the candidates. During a Senate meeting, Democrat Sen. Annette Taddeo pushed back against St. Petersburg Republican Sen. Jeff Brandes, who filled the proposed bill.

“Why is the right of one individual, the candidate who wants this application hidden from the public, more important than the right of the university and college communities to know who all the applicants are?” she said.

The bill is currently planned for a third reading. The search for a new leader is underway at UF, University of South Florida, the University of North Florida, and Florida International University.

After 8 years, Fuchs is set to retire at the end of this year as UF’s president to work as a professor in the computer engineering department. He made the decision privately when he was reappointed in 2019. He said trustees will search for the next president this year.

Executives at this week’s West Palm Beach Development and Investment Forum discussed everything from the business migration to housing affordability. According to Fuchs and mayor Keith James, the University of Florida, Palm Beach County and the City of West Palm Beach are close to approving a UF campus in downtown West Palm Beach.

UF plans to work alongside local universities and leaders of different areas of service and industry. Fuchs expects the initial set of programs for the new campus in West Palm Beach to be approved this year. He acknowledged that UF still needs to recruit faculty, students and professional staff.

On artificial intelligence

Fuchs said the move to bring graduate level programs to the city is part of a mission to create an “AI enabled workforce,” especially in the financial services industry.

“There was an opportunity for the University of Florida to lead nationally in infusing AI and data analytics and machine intelligence and robotics across our curriculum so that no student would graduate from the University of Florida unless they'd had at least one course in their related major that was associated with artificial intelligence,” Fuchs said.

On investing in Scripps Research Institute

Fuchs said UF is investing a 100 million dollar donation to Scripps Research Institute.

"It's not yet finalized. We're not yet announcing it, even though I know we're talking publicly here," Fuchs said. "But I wanted to give a sense of the ambition here, and also very similarly here in West Palm.”

On the partnership with IBM

UF is partnering with IBM to co-create a master’s degree in artificial intelligence. Fuchs stressed the importance of creating partnerships, adding that universities have to also engage with startup companies.

“They're also going to provide free access to all of their software that they have developed that will be available to the university students and faculty at the University of Florida,” Fuchs said. “And that partnership is real important because universities cannot be just simply ivory towers. They've got to engage with world class universities and also startup companies, the whole spectrum so that what we do is relevant to the business world.”

On partnering with Palm Beach County's school superintendent

Fuchs said he’d been asked by Superintendent Mike Burke to see if there are ways that UF might be able to assist in improving the public school system here.

That may come through the New World Reading Initiative, which aims to improve literacy "through strategic school and community partnerships [where] hundreds of thousands of eligible students will have the chance to build personalized libraries that reflect their unique interests and backgrounds.”

“We’ve committed to Superintendent Burke that we will work with him in ways that he asked us to, that he feels appropriate," Fuchs said. "The Land Grant University has a mission to help not just the higher ED, but also the K through 12, and we look forward to that.”

Wilkine Brutus is the Palm Beach County Reporter for WLRN. The award-winning journalist produces stories on topics surrounding local news, culture, art, politics and current affairs. Contact Wilkine at wbrutus@wlrnnews.org
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