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Here's how a new law is quickly playing a part in searches for new Florida university presidents

 The iconic Century Tower stands in the middle of the University of Florida campus in Gainesville on July 22, 2021.
Houston Wells
Fresh Take Florida
The iconic Century Tower stands in the middle of the University of Florida campus in Gainesville on July 22, 2021. UF is one of five state schools searching for new leaders.

Searches for new presidents at state universities are ramping up after Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a bill that will shield personal information about applicants for the top jobs at colleges and universities.

DeSantis signed the measure last week, which went into effect immediately. It came as five universities — the University of Florida, the University of South Florida, Florida International University, the University of North Florida and Florida Gulf Coast University — are in various stages of searching for new leaders.

On Wednesday morning, University of North Florida trustees discussed their school’s search, including a brief overview about how the new law could impact the process.

“That (law) will affect all of the ongoing searches, including ours. So that is good to hear,” UNF trustees Chairman Kevin Hyde said.

The school’s former president, David Szymanski, stepped down from the job in August.

The new law creates a public records exemption for information that could identify applicants until near the end of searches, when information about finalists would be released. Information about other applicants would remain shielded.

Lucy Leske, senior partner with the search firm WittKieffer, which is assisting UNF with its search, described to the trustees how the law could affect the pool of candidates. Trustees are set to “screen” candidates during a meeting at the end of this month.

“Some people have been somewhat on pins and needles about the legislation, and they have certainly been waiting to see how that would all unfold before they were willing to put their materials forward. So, we expect to see a real flush of interest over the next 10 days or so as we prepare for our meeting on (March) 28th,” Leske said.

The law also provides a public meetings exemption for searches until finalists are determined, unless meetings are held for the purposes of establishing qualifications for the positions or “any compensation framework.”

Paul McElroy, vice chairman of the UNF trustees, said trustees “slid the schedule forward” — pushing back the dates of various meetings dealing with the search — and explained how the new law will affect the next meeting.

“The initial portion of the meeting will be talking about process, in sort of, say, the first hour. And then the remainder will be in a confidential setting according to the law. This is not a regulation or a rule or a policy or a procedure, this is the law,” McElroy said. “We will be in a confidential setting and discussing as a committee the candidates’ attributes and strengths and working to narrow down the list, if you will, to the number of candidates we’d like to speak with.”

UNF trustees are expected to interview three to five finalists from May 4 to May 18.

Supporters have argued the law, which received final approval from the Legislature this month, will help schools attract candidates who might otherwise be reluctant to apply because of concerns about their current employers finding out. But critics have said the law goes against the state’s history of open government.

Florida International University is close to selecting a search firm in its bid to find a new leader. The university’s former president, Mark Rosenberg, abruptly resigned in January. Rosenberg initially cited health reasons, but later acknowledged that his resignation came after he “caused discomfort” for a female colleague.

FIU trustees are set to interview three search firms during a meeting Friday.

The University of Florida is in a similar stage, after President Kent Fuchs announced in January that he will step down when a new president is appointed, which is expected by early 2023.

Trustees for the state’s flagship university will meet Friday to discuss the selection of a search firm.

The University of South Florida is near the end of its search process, which means the new law likely will have little effect on it. The school’s Presidential Search Committee this month advanced two final candidates, current USF Interim President Rhea Law and Jeffrey Talley, who are scheduled to tour the university’s campuses and meet with students and faculty on Monday.

Former USF president Steven Currall announced his retirement from the job last summer.

Florida Gulf Coast University, meanwhile, is in an earlier stage of the search process, as President Mike Martin is set to retire at the end of the year.

FGCU is in the “preliminary phase” of launching a national search and has not announced the members of a presidential search advisory committee or hired a search firm.

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Ryan Dailey - News Service of Florida
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