House Panel Approves Bill Shielding College, University Leadership Searches From Sunshine Laws

Mar 15, 2017
Originally published on March 14, 2017 9:33 am

For the past several years, Florida’s public colleges and universities have sought to shield high-level position searches from the state’s sunshine law. The measure has repeatedly been swatted down, but its effort is back again.

There’s a revolving door that exists between the legislature and Florida’s public colleges and universities. Lawmakers often end up in high-ranking positions. One of the most notable, former state House Speaker,  Senator and Republican Party of Florida Chairman, John Thrasher, now leads FSU. That decision didn’t go down without a bitter fight among FSU stakeholders.

But the fight may have been mitigated had it taken place outside the public eye. Arguments for exempting university president, dean and provost searches go like this:

“This gives us an opportunity to increase our pool of applicants.”

“Leaders in higher education that are sitting presidents, that don’t want their name in a newspaper saying they’re interested in a different job.”

Former Sen. Alan Hays, and former Florida higher education chancellor Charlie Reed made those arguments in past years. This year’s arguments are similar.

“By exempting preliminary discussions…it will free our colleges and universities to hire the best and brightest without fear of repraisal from those current employers," says Rep. Rob Rommel, sponsor of this years proposal. It's nearly identical to Hays' 2014 bill, the year Thrasher was hired at FSU.

Since then, there have been six successful presidential searches in the state. And there are reasons such searches are public.

“We have to consider things like, are candidates being vetted, do they have an inside track we may not be happy about, is there enough diversity in picking candidates? And we may not hear that or see that if we have this exemption," says Democratic Rep. Richard Starke.

The state's public colleges and universities say Florida’s Sunshine law has hurt the presidential search process, and that in order for the state’s public colleges and universities to thrive, such searches need to be private. But the First Amendment Foundation's Barbara Peterson has never bought it:

“We’ve been operating in the Sunshine for many, many, many years. And we have a long tradition of openness in Florida, and we’ve had some excellent university presidents," she said. "To say we're not getting the best and brightest seems to fly in the face of those who have stepped forward and who have been selected."

There is some bipartisan consensus on the idea to shield high level college and university searches. Democratic Representative Ramon Alexander’s district includes FSU and Florida A&M University. FAMU has endured difficult presidential searches in the past few years. And Alexander says the state’s sunshine law has cut out good candidates. He argues positions like president, provost and dean, don't have the same level of job security as other positions, do--and there's a lot of "maneuvering and jockeying" for those jobs, making occupants really cautious about what their next move might be.

“Because those positions are high level positions, they can be removed immediately,  They have no type of protections, and it cuts out a lot of talent," Alexander says.

The effort could face a steep climb. While the House is forging ahead with the measure, it’s historically failed in the Senate, and so far, a companion bill hasn’t moved in that chamber.

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