Miami Dade College’s faculty union is leading a lawsuit against the board of trustees after a new majority of members recently appointed by Gov. Ron DeSantis voted to scrap a months-long search for the institution's next president.
It’s the latest twist in a drama that has included allegations from both board members and professors that the process might have been manipulated to favor a certain candidate.
Several faculty members announced the lawsuit Wednesday morning, which was filed in Miami’s Eleventh District Circuit and is being paid for by the United Faculty of Miami Dade College. The complaint argues that the search process, which began in March, was legally established, and that cancelling it at the last minute violated faculty members’ due process rights under the state constitution.
“We now need the courts to step in and bring justice to what has happened to our community,” said Mark Richard, a retired veteran legal studies professor who helped found the faculty union and now serves as its lawyer.
“Was this a candidate in search of a search committee? We don’t know,” Richard said. “But we do know this: 500 people inquired. Forty-seven to 50 applied. Seven finalists were interviewed. … The dates always stayed the same: the end of July. And then, when it came time to vote, they changed everything in the eleventh hour.”
A spokesman for the college, Juan Mendieta, said trustees will not discuss the search until the board’s next meeting, which hasn’t yet been scheduled.
In response to the lawsuit, Mendieta wrote in an email: “The faculty and its union are free to do as they wish on these matters.”
The current president, Eduardo Padrón, announced in February his plans to retire in August after leading the college since 1995. The original search was scheduled to yield the next president by last week, before Padrón left and a new semester began. But that didn’t happen, thanks to a shakeup on the board ordered by DeSantis, a Republican.
DeSantis appointed four new members to the seven-person board in March, after the previous board had approved the search criteria, appointed a search committee and contracted with a national search firm. Then the new board members pushed for an unexpected meeting on May 30 to consider changing the requirements to allow non-traditional candidates to apply.
Ultimately, a proposal from new board member and former Republican state Rep. Michael Bileca to delete the minimum requirements that applicants have a doctoral degree and at least six years of experience in higher education administration was voted down, 4-3. Board members said then they might reconsider the decision if the search, as originally designed, didn’t yield quality candidates.
Two weeks before the scheduled vote, DeSantis appointed another new board member, giving him the majority of appointments.
Last week, the board interviewed four candidates, including Padrón’s No. 2 at the college now, Provost Lenore Rodicio. But some board members didn’t want to move forward with the vote. They said Rodicio was the only viable option of the four, and at least one board member suggested that the search committee might have preferred Rodicio, who many see as someone who would continue Padrón’s legacy.
The board voted to go back to the drawing board, although the details about how the search will move forward are murky.
Marcell Felipe, an attorney and newly appointed trustee, said the board needed more time.
“Given that the majority of the board is new, we need some time to get used to the institution, the mission, the values, understand where we’re going, before we can make a decision of this magnitude,” he said after the vote last week.
Later, he appeared on CBS 4’s public affairs show “Facing South Florida” and put it this way: “Listen, if you want me to jump in bed at the last minute, at least take me to dinner, give me some wine, and let’s see where it leads."
That rhetoric drew the ire of the faculty union. Members are concerned the search might be intended to yield a political ally of the governor. DeSantis' office did not return a request for comment.
Richard, the union lawyer, said he’s afraid a new college president who prioritizes politics over education could award lucrative contracts and jobs to donors and even try to stifle activism.
“It’s a college that calls out legislators if we believe that they’re not adequately funding new programs or they don’t have enough scholarships for poor kids from Miami,” he said. “And if you take away the independence of that voice in Tallahassee, you are now controlling the largest college in the entire state."
The college has spent nearly $170,000 on a search that did not yield a president. Richard said the optics could hurt the final resolution, whenever that comes.
Going forward, “why would anyone want to apply, of any caliber, at this point … if this is what’s going on here?” he said. “It looks like a circus.”