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Florida's presidential search shield shakes up higher-ed processes

State university system Chancellor Ray Rodrigues
News Service of Florida
State university system Chancellor Ray Rodrigues

TALLAHASSEE — Amid a pause in Florida Atlantic University’s search for a new president, leaders of a First Amendment group and a national higher-education association are pointing to a controversial new law shielding presidential candidates’ identities as harmful to public trust and academic freedom.

Meanwhile, a former state senator who was the main sponsor of the 2022 legislation told The News Service of Florida this week that some people involved in college and university presidential search processes have “perverted the intent” of the law.

The measure, signed by Gov. Ron DeSantis, created a seismic shift in the way colleges and universities can conduct searches for new leaders. The changes came as nearly half of Florida’s universities were seeking new presidents.

The law, in part, created a public-records exemption for information that could identify applicants until near the end of searches, when information about finalists can be released. Information about other applicants, however, remains shielded.

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.”

Supporters of the law maintained that it would help the state shield prominent applicants from tipping off their current employers while seeking a Florida post.

“They (potential candidates) may not apply, just because they don’t want their current employer to know they were applying,” former state Sen. Jeff Brandes, a St. Petersburg Republican who helped sponsor the bill, said in a recent interview.

While the law “serves that purpose,” it has been “misinterpreted” in some instances, Brandes added.

“When we come down to how they’ve implemented it, they’ve completely perverted the intent of this law. And, you know, they have to justify their perversions. But they have done it,” Brandes said.

Brandes’ concerns stem from multiple higher-ed searches that culminated in a single finalist being put forward for consideration by trustee boards, which have to give an initial sign-off on final candidates.

The University of Florida’s trustees in November selected Ben Sasse, a Republican former U.S. Senator from Nebraska, as its president. Sasse assumed the role on Feb. 6 after a process that received pushback from students and faculty, largely because Sasse was the lone finalist for the job.

A single candidate also emerged as the sole finalist in a recent state college search. South Florida State College’s District Board of Trustees selected former state Rep. Fred Hawkins, a St. Cloud Republican, as its leader in a process in which Hawkins was the only finalist.

“I think it violates the law,” Brandes said of such instances. “I think the law is clear that there is supposed to be a group of applicants. And ‘group’ is a plural word, and ‘applicants’ is a plural word. I don’t know how they interpret a group of applicants to mean one person, consistently.”

The law refers to a “group” of candidates four times, including in an introductory part of the measure. The law provides for records exemptions related to the “final group of applicants for president of a state university or a Florida College System” institution.

A search process that results in a single candidate is “bad for everybody,” Brandes said.

“It’s bad for the public, it’s bad for the universities. It diminishes the process. And it was never the intent of the law. I would never have filed a bill that said only one person. I would have voted against that bill,” Brandes said. He added that he is “waiting for some faculty groups to file lawsuits to force a group of applicants to be named.”

The president-search law also was a factor in a decision by Ray Rodrigues, chancellor of Florida’s university system, to suspend Florida Atlantic University's hunt for a new leader after the school's search committee released the names of three finalists.

Rodrigues pointed to the 2022 law in a letter to university officials last week when he called off the search, saying FAU’s Presidential Search Committee had wrongfully participated in a straw poll to rank their top preferences from a list of dozens of candidates. The meeting was “held in the shade,” Rodrigues said, citing a part of the law that requires a “complete recording” of meetings that are closed for the purpose of concealing personal identifying information about applicants.

Rodrigues also alleged that the search was improper because “at least one candidate” was asked on a questionnaire “if his sexual orientation was ‘queer’ and whether he was ‘a male or transgender male.’” The anonymous candidate was asked about his preferred pronouns in a separate survey, the chancellor said.

The law makes it impossible “to verify anything” that Rodrigues is saying, said Bobby Block, executive director of the Florida First Amendment Foundation.

“What the whole process enables is, it enables political interference. Because without having any insight into how this process went, we have no way to know whether Rodrigues’ accusations against FAU are legitimate,” Block told the News Service in an interview.

Block also pointed to reports that state Rep. Randy Fine, a Brevard County Republican who is an ally of DeSantis, was a candidate for the job.

“We have no idea who’s beyond the names of the finalists. We don’t know who the other applicants are. There’s a lot of speculation out there that this is a result of Randy Fine not making a short list. But we don’t even know if Randy Fine applied, because we have no insight into what’s going on,” Block said.

Public trust is lost when the search process is “obscured by darkness,” Block said.

The United Faculty of Florida union has harshly criticized several of the searches affected by the law. The union issued a strongly-worded statement in October demanding information about the “more than 700 applicants and the personal identifying information of the final pool of 12 candidates” for the UF president job. The union said its request was denied.

The faculty union also this week called on Rodrigues to allow FAU’s search to “continue unhindered or to immediately resign from his position.”

Rodrigues on Tuesday told FAU officials that he has directed the university system’s Board of Governors’ Inspector General Julie Leftheris to investigate “anomalies” in its search process.

The chancellor’s halting of the search sparked backlash from FAU search committee member Dick Schmidt.

“I feel personally outraged and slandered by the implications of the chancellor’s letter on me and my colleagues, for what appears to be an attempt to unwind our successful, hard work and reopen a search for a candidate more to the liking of certain politicians,” Schmidt, an FAU donor, wrote in an opinion piece.

Lynn Pasquerella, president of the American Association of Colleges and Universities, characterized the law as part of “governmental overreach into issues of academic freedom” in the Sunshine State.

Pasquerella pointed to what she said is a larger effort by conservative politicians to remake higher education over the past decade.

“This is something that’s been fomented by the conservatives who are not only attempting to reform higher education but to dismantle higher education,” she said in an interview. “It is a lack of transparency, a lack of shared governance. Saying, ‘this is a group of elitists existing in the ivory towers. And we’re going to take them over and serve the real needs of Americans.’”