Bill would allow universities to seek presidents outside the Sunshine Law
Published: Monday, April 1, 2013 at 5:54 p.m.
Last Modified: Monday, April 1, 2013 at 5:54 p.m.
For 46 years, the search for candidates to lead Florida’s universities has been conducted in the sunshine from start to finish, allowing the public an unfettered view of the selection process for the state’s highest leadership posts in education.
Those searches have produced an impressive list of university presidents, to name just a handful: Walter L. Smith and Frederick S. Humphries at Florida A&M University; Bernard Sliger and Talbot “Sandy” D’Alemberte at Florida State University; and Robert Q. Marston and John Lombardi at the University of Florida.
Now, with pre-empted searches to replace Bernie Machen, the 11th president at UF, fresh in people’s minds, an effort is under way to make those searches less transparent.
A bill by Rep. John Tobia, R-Melbourne Beach, would keep the names of candidates for university president, provost or dean confidential until 21 days before a selection committee would vote on them. The House Government Operations Subcommittee unanimously approved the measure Monday, but it has no companion bill in the Senate.
“Obviously ... when (Machen) was stepping down, it became an issue,” said Tobia, a UF alumnus and professor at Valencia College. “It has been on my mind a while, but with the UF search I thought it needed to be settled before he steps down again.”
Tobia cited a report from 2004 that showed more candidates submitted their names to a presidential search in states where names were kept confidential until right before a vote.
Machen was set to retire at the end of this year, triggering a nationwide search for a replacement. That search was scuttled days before the board of trustees was scheduled to select a new president when Gov. Rick Scott intervened, announcing that Machen had agreed to stay on to realize his goal of turning UF into a pre-eminent, top-10 university.
That decision came as a surprise to some search committee members who thought they were on track to making a final decision. One member, Dianne Morgan, at the time said the committee had a “number of very good candidates.”
But Cheri Brodeur, chair of the UF Faculty Senate and a member of the board of trustees, said she believes many more qualified potential candidates would have applied had they been able to keep their names confidential until the committee created a short list or came close to voting.
Brodeur said she does not support a wholesale overhaul of the Sunshine Law. “The issue is the presidential search being confidential again,” she said.
The Faculty Senate voted in support of the measure last week.
Brodeur said she knew of three people who told her they wouldn’t throw their hat into the ring because of the public nature of the process. She suggested waiting until the list was honed down to viable candidates before making it public.
“We had some good potential candidates who would have put their name in had (the search) not been cut short. Some sitting presidents had shown interest, but not publicized it because they had not submitted their names,” Brodeur said. “At least three successful, sitting presidents begged us not to mention we were even considering them.”
Florida has one of the most open public records and meetings laws in the nation. It has conducted open presidential searches since 1967, said Barbara Peterson, president of the First Amendment Foundation. Since that time, the state has had no problem selecting top-tier, qualified presidents, provosts and deans, she said.
The notion that open searches prevented the best and brightest from applying was “baloney,” she said.
“They haven’t shown me any anecdotal evidence supporting this,” Peterson said, citing the selection of Eric Barron to head up FSU in 2009. Barron, a former director of the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colo., served on the boards of several scientific agencies and was dean of Earth and Mineral Sciences at Pennsylvania State University.
A public search might be inconvenient to some, she said, but then so are democracies. Candidates should know from the moment they apply that the state is committed to open government.
The Florida Constitution guarantees a presumption of openness, she added, making it the task of the Legislature to justify the need to make such a search confidential.
“Now all of a sudden we’re concerned that we are not getting the best candidates. If they can show me proof we are not getting the best candidates, I’ll change my position.”
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