UF law professor questions openness of law dean search


Published: Tuesday, January 14, 2014 at 7:09 p.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, January 14, 2014 at 7:09 p.m.

A list of candidates being considered to replace outgoing Levin College of Law Dean Robert Jerry proved elusive for one interested law professor at the University of Florida, who says he suspects the administration wants to keep part of its candidate search in the shadows.

"The university carefully structures its searches to avoid the spirit of the open meeting law," said Jeffrey Harrison, the Stephen C. O'Connell Chair at the UF law school since 1983.

Janine Sikes, assistant vice president for media relations and point person for all UF public records requests, said the university staff worked diligently to expedite Harrison's request for information about the search within a few hours.

"That's a very good turnaround," she said.

The list of dean candidates provided to UF by a search firm includes 20 law professors, deans and former deans who hold positions in higher education, three corporate attorneys and one U.S. ambassador. Two are from Florida, while the others are from New York, Ohio, Kentucky, North Carolina and Utah. One is from Montreal.

The search committee will meet Friday to discuss the candidates' qualifications and choose several for on-campus interviews, said Glenn Good, chairman of the search committee and dean of the College of Education.

"We will pick a shorter list for up to two days' worth of interviewing at 75 minutes per person to take a better look at the people in the flesh beyond their credentials," Good said.

University executive searches are a touchy topic in Florida, where state law requires the names of all applicants to be public from beginning to end. Officials have said repeatedly that having the search in the sunshine limits the number of top-tier candidates who apply, some of whom may fear reprisal from their current employers.

Officials involved in last year's search to replace UF President Bernie Machen before he decided not to retire said they could have fielded a more robust list of candidates if the early stages had been kept secret. One Florida lawmaker has introduced a bill that would require only the disclosure of the names of finalists for on-campus interviews.

"My impression, and that of others, is that the university structures the searches to stay technically within the law, whether it is consistent with the spirit of the law or not," Harrison said. "I doubt anyone will come clean on this, but most understand that is the game."

One common practice is the hiring of a private search firm to handle the application process and selection of candidates for a search committee to consider. UF hired the Los Angeles executive search company Korn/Ferry to screen applicants.

Harrison said he first heard about the list on Monday from a colleague on the search committee and asked Good for a copy Monday night. Good forwarded the request to Sikes.

Sikes replied to Harrison late Tuesday morning, saying she hoped to have something for him by Friday's search committee meeting. Harrison questioned why she couldn't email him the list immediately, since it already existed on the computers of several of his colleagues and would require only a couple of clicks to send the material via email.

"I not only have a right to the document, but I have a right to see it as soon as anyone else," Harrison wrote back to Sikes. "Why not go with common sense here?"

Sikes said she understood his point, but that there was no list so one had to be created. "We are doing this for you, and as soon as I get it, I will share it," she said.

Harrison said he found a member of the search committee willing to give him a copy of the list. The list is available on the website of Korn/Ferry International but requires a password and code to access the information.

The colleague entered his code and downloaded the list for Harrison. Once Harrison had a copy of the list, he wrote to Sikes saying she should not trust the person who told her there was no list.

Sikes replied that the search firm was "preparing a list of the individuals who will be considered Friday. I am not aware that the list is otherwise in existence."

Once again, Harrison wrote to Sikes saying he had a copy of the list.

Sikes told The Sun that Good and Amy Meyers Hass, an associate vice president and deputy general counsel for UF, had told her on Tuesday morning that there was no list. But Harrison said his colleague on the search committee had a copy of the list the day before. Not only that, but the list provided links to the candidates' resumes on Korn/Ferry's website.

"You should know that while you were saying your understanding that there is no list, the chair of the committee and every member of the committee had the list," Harrison wrote to Sikes.

Three hours later, Sikes sent him a list of the 24 candidates selected by Korn/Ferry for the search committee to consider.

Good said the website Korn/Ferry set up for UF's search was activated Friday and that he got the list around 10 p.m. Monday. When Sikes asked if he had a list, Good said he explained they would have to write the list of names down off the website.

"Someone had to go on the website, take the names off of it and write a clean list without the credentials and other material the applicants filed," Good said.

When a request came for more information on the candidates, Good had his assistant download their resumes and other credentials. He said the search firm was surprised by UF's openness.

"They are surprised by this level of information being released this early in the process," Good said. "It's startling nationwide, to people outside the state of Florida."

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