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Senate approves secret searches for state college and university presidents

University of Florida Century Tower as seen from CISE and Marston. Photo: Kate Haskell / Wikimedia Commons
University of Florida Century Tower as seen from CISE and Marston. Photo: Kate Haskell / Wikimedia Commons

The Senate on Thursday passed a long-debated bill that would shield information about applicants vying to lead colleges and universities, as nearly half of Florida’s state universities are searching for presidents or will soon be pursuing new leaders.

The bill (SB 520) would keep confidential names and other information about applicants for state college and university presidencies, though information about finalists would be released near the end of searches.

The measure was approved by senators in a 28-11 vote, after a substantial change was made Thursday.

That change would require that the age, gender and race of all applicants “who met the minimum qualifications” for the job be revealed at the time finalists are disclosed. The Senate measure would require that the identities of finalists be made public at least 21 days before presidents are chosen.

Sen. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg, said the change would ensure that “we know the diversity of the pool” of applicants.

Rouson, Sen. Shevrin Jones, D-West Park, Sen. Janet Cruz, D-Tampa, and Sen. Linda Stewart, D-Orlando, joined Republicans in voting for the bill, allowing it to exceed a two-thirds margin legally required to create public-records exemptions. A similar proposal last year fell one vote short in the Senate.

Rouson said his support was rooted in a personal experience involving his father applying for a college presidency decades ago.

“I won’t disrespect this chamber by repeating the vile … hate-filled letters, using words that we do not use on the floor of this Senate, because of his application,” Rouson said. “I believe that this bill will produce better-quality candidates. And if I can save one family with this amended bill, then my vote speaks to that.”

The bill also would provide a public-meetings exemption for searches, unless meetings are held for the purposes of establishing qualifications for the job or “establishing any compensation framework” for a candidate. Also, the open-meetings exemption would not apply after groups of finalists have been established.

Bill sponsor Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, said the measure is aimed at attracting the “broadest pool of applicants” possible during higher-ed searches. Brandes has repeatedly argued that applicants’ information being public under the current process dissuades potential candidates from applying, in part because their current employers could find out.

“What this does is provide no reason for anybody not to apply. Because if you don't make the finalists’ list, your name will be held confidentially,” Brandes said. “That is the beauty of this.”

Democrats who opposed the measure argued that obscuring applicants’ information would lead to institutions getting more “insider” candidates who are politically connected.

“We have not seen or heard any evidence of any chilling effect on the process because of our current openness and transparency. In fact, the evidence is to the contrary. The presidents themselves who have been through this process, the applicants themselves, have lauded the process,” Sen. Gary Farmer, D-Lighthouse Point, said.

However, Florida Gulf Coast University President Mike Martin endorsed the measure last month, telling a Senate committee that the current process “sends two messages.”

“One is, I’m looking for a job. And the second is, if you don’t make the finals, I must not be very good. Those are not good messages, wherever you are in your career,” Martin told the Senate Rules Committee during a Jan. 27 hearing.

Martin is set to retire at the end of this year, which will leave the university searching for a new president. Meanwhile, four other universities in the 12-school system already need new presidents.

The University of North Florida and the University of South Florida are being led by interim presidents and are seeking new leaders.

Similarly, University of Florida President Kent Fuchs recently announced he will step down at the end of 2022 to work as a professor in the school’s department of electrical and computer engineering. Also, former Florida International University President Mark Rosenberg last month abruptly announced his resignation, later acknowledging that his exit came after he caused “discomfort for a valued colleague.”

A similar House bill (HB 703) needs approval from the House Education & Employment Committee before it could be considered by the full chamber.

House Speaker Chris Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor, told reporters Thursday that he supports the measure.

“There is not another job out there where somebody tells their employer, who is currently paying their bills, paying for their family’s health care and health insurance, ‘Hey, I’m going to go look for another job, I like this job better than you,’” Sprowls said.

The House version of the bill has a key difference from the Senate measure. The House would provide a 14-day window in which finalists’ information would be made public before selections are made, a week shorter than the Senate bill’s 21-day period.

Brandes pledged to senators Thursday that he intends to “stand firm” on the Senate bill’s 21-day window.

Copyright 2022 WLRN 91.3 FM. To see more, visit WLRN 91.3 FM.

Ryan Dailey is a reporter/producer for WFSU/Florida Public Radio. After graduating from Florida State University, Ryan went into print journalism working for the Tallahassee Democrat for five years. At the Democrat, he worked as a copy editor, general assignment and K-12 education reporter.