Machen wants 'visionary' to lead law school, faculty told

In this June 11, 2013 file photo, University of Florida President Bernie Machen is shown outside Tigert Hall.

Erica Brough/The Gainesville Sun
Published: Tuesday, March 18, 2014 at 6:17 p.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, March 18, 2014 at 6:17 p.m.

In a meeting off limits to the media and the public, University of Florida President Bernie Machen met with about 65 Levin College of Law faculty and staff Tuesday morning to explain his decision to end the search for a new dean and nominate George Dawson as interim dean.

The closed-door meeting caps a months-long process that had been criticized for a lack of openness, delays in obtaining records related to the search, and a sense among some faculty members that they were being excluded from the process.

After quizzing Machen for an hour before he had to leave for the airport, some faculty members left the Chesterfield Smith Ceremonial Classroom shaking their heads, rolling their eyes and sighing -- but unwilling to talk to the media about what transpired behind the double set of wooden doors guarded by security.

The ones who did speak chose their words carefully.

“I thought it was helpful for the president to come over and give his reason for the failed search,” said Lyrissa Lidsky, associate dean for international studies at UF Law and one of the search committee’s 11 members.

Their task, to find a replacement for outgoing Dean Robert Jerry, came at a pivotal time in the history of legal education and the legal profession. Machen must choose a dean who can meet those challenges as well as be a good fit for the university, Lidsky said.

“It’s his prerogative to decide who meets the needs of the University of Florida,” Lidsky said.

Dawson, she said, would make a wonderful interim dean with his “wisdom, experience and judgment.” Dawson is a senior faculty member with more than 30 years of experience at UF Law, including a four-year stint as an associate dean. He agreed to postpone his retirement to serve as interim dean.

Mary Adkins, the director of legal writing and appellate advocacy who also served on the search committee, said she was disappointed that Machen didn’t choose from the three nominees sent to him. But, she said, Machen told faculty that he “felt he wanted to see someone who was not only a scholar but a visionary, and none of the three met that requirement.”

Several faculty members at the meeting raised the issue of Machen’s commitment to diversity, something they had also discussed with the search committee. Machen told them he was “open to dealing with the diversity issue.”

Other faculty sent emails saying they weren’t as involved as they had been in past searches.

“I take issue with the search committee’s failure to keep us directly informed about the process of selecting the person who will be our next dean before it is published in the papers,” Pedro Malavet wrote. He also said law faculty are supposed to be active participants in the process, “not an observer on the sidelines.”

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.

A bill introduced this session by Rep. Dave Kerner, a University of Florida law school graduate and Democrat from Lake Worth, would exempt personal identifying information about the candidates from public records law and exempt meetings or parts of meetings where candidates’ names and other personal information are identified.

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, paying $90,000 for its expertise in conducting a nationwide search.

When a candidate withdrew, Korn/Ferry officer John Amer used the occasion to express his concerns about Florida’s Sunshine Law.

“I don’t know why search committee members continue to speak publicly of the candidates, including characterizing some as second tier, especially before they’ve even met them,” Amer told committee members.

The search firm gave the committee 24 names to consider, from which the committee picked four finalists who were flown back to Gainesville for two days of meetings with the committee, Machen, Provost Joe Glover, Jerry, other administrators, faculty and staff.

The committee sent the names of three candidates to Machen and Glover -- University of Kentucky College of Law Dean Dave Brennen, Georgia State law professor Sam Donaldson, and former ambassador to New Zealand David Huebner.

Machen and Glover found none of the three “ideally suited” to lead the college through “a decade that will be simultaneously challenging for the profession and replete with opportunities for growth and advancement,” Machen said in a letter sent to staff on Friday.

Glover contacted the search firm, which in turn contacted the candidates, said Janine Sikes, assistant vice president for media relations at UF.

One faculty member at the meeting, who asked to remain anonymous, said members of the faculty are extremely upset at Machen.

“President Machen could not even articulate a coherent reason why he did not select either of the top two candidates,” the faculty member said, referring to Brennen, an African American, and David Huebner, who is gay. “It became clear during the discussion, however, that he canceled the search because Alex Acosta did not make the list of finalists. And (Machen) seemed clueless about the potential reputation harms caused by the appearance of racial and sexual orientation discrimination.”

Machen denied it would have made a difference if Acosta had been sent forward, and told the media that the rules were that he had to consider only the candidates the search committee gave him.

Students said they would have liked more details about the failed search.

Brett Williams, a third year law student graduating in May, and president of the John Marshall Bar Association, said he cared deeply about UF’s future.

“If President Machen says none of the finalists were the right person for the job then I trust his judgment,” Williams said. “He was right to say the next 10 years are a great challenge and opportunity for the college of law. We need to find the right dean… maybe waiting a year isn’t a bad thing.”

The dean search fail comes at a time the law college was already reeling from the latest rankings released by US News & World Report, in which UF fell three positions to 49th, while Florida State rose three spots to 45th, becoming the top-ranked law school in Florida for once.

As the flagship university, UF ought to hold the rank as top state law school, Williams said.

“The rankings may be flawed but they have the ability to shape perception, which has the ability to shape reality.” Williams said.

Prior to his meeting with faculty, Machen met with reporters and told them that he wanted to hear what the faculty had to say and make a positive transition forward.

“We want a leader who is going to help maintain UF’s position and help faculty work through the issues,” he said.

Machen said what he didn’t see in the three candidates forwarded to him, despite their outstanding qualifications, was “a transformative leader who understands the law profession.”

Asked if he would likely get a chance to select the next law dean before he steps down as president in December, Machen said, “This was to be my last dean search. I don’t know if I’ll make it to the next one. Likely the next president will be sitting here when that decision is made.”

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