Editorial: UF's murky search
Published: Wednesday, April 3, 2013 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, April 2, 2013 at 4:15 p.m.
The idea that the University of Florida's last presidential search was conducted in a transparent way is fiction. The idea that transparency scuttled the search is a farce.
Yet those reasons are being used as justification for a bill that would reduce transparency in the selection of state university presidents. As state lawmakers consider the measure, they should keep the real history of UF's last search in mind.
That search process was derailed due to the involvement of a governor who supported major higher education cuts before this year, perhaps a bigger factor than the Sunshine Law in a failure to attract top candidates.
From the start of a nearly six-month search process that ended with Gov. Rick Scott's intervention, it was clear that UF officials would try to work around the state's Sunshine Law that requires public meetings and records. Former UF trustee Al Warrington said it himself at the meeting last July when the search committee was formed.
"There's no way you can select a president in the Sunshine worth a crap," Warrington said during a portion of a conference shut off for Gainesville media but heard by a Tampa Bay Times reporter. "We need people with (UF President Bernie Machen) under the radar screen doing the search."
The search committee did hold public meetings on issues such as job criteria. But the names of nominees and applicants for the job that were released during the search lacked any major research university leaders and included joke names such as football coach Steve Spurrier.
That's because serious contenders were advised to wait until the last second to apply, keeping their names from being revealed through a public records request. UF officials had planned to release those names on the morning that finalists would be selected to visit campus, the day before those visits were supposed to take place and just two days before the next president was going to be chosen.
But the biggest illustration of a lack of transparency was the way that the search ended. Behind the scenes over the Christmas holiday, Scott met with North Carolina State University Chancellor Randy Woodson, an apparent contender for the UF presidency. For reasons that still haven't been fully disclosed, the governor then asked Machen to stay on the job.
Now state Rep. John Tobia, R-Melbourne Beach, is using the UF search as justification for a bill to reduce transparency in all state university searches for president or provost. The measure, which received UF Faculty Senate support last week and passed a legislative committee vote Monday, provides public record and meeting exemptions for those searches.
Although the premise that too much transparency doomed the UF search is flawed, the measure would also require names of a final group of applicants to be released no later than 21 days before final action is taken — something that would improve the current last-minute process.
The bill has no companion measure in the state Senate, so approval is uncertain. But if lawmakers get serious about passing such a measure, they should first be honest about the failure of the UF search and their own role in higher education cuts that scare away quality candidates.
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