Bill Takes College Searches Out Of Sunshine

Mar 10, 2015

Fallout from the appointment of Florida State University President John Thrasher continued Tuesday as a House panel voted to take the academic recruiting process behind closed doors.

Rep. Neil Combee, R-Polk County, wants to move presidential searches in the university system behind closed doors.
Credit Florida House of Representatives

Democrats, FSU faculty and open government advocates are strongly opposed.

Representative Neil Combee, a Republican from Polk County, isn’t sure whether Florida’s public records laws scare away potential university presidents, provosts or deans.

But it’s possible some candidates don’t want their job search advertised, he says. And there’ a more fundamental reason for shutting the public out of the search process, he says.

“And another thing, universities in Florida, in this system, are not democratic institutions.”

That dumfounds Jennifer Proffitt, president of the Florida State University chapter of the United Faculty of Florida.

“I don’t think I know what to say because I’m not sure I’ve processed that yet…”

Proffitt, an associate dean of communications, says the notion is a stab to her heart.

“It’s the whole reason why we have a public education system, so that people are well informed.”

During the FSU presidential search this summer, it was an open secret that former House Speaker John Thrasher had a lock on the job. An alum and former House speaker, Thrasher sold himself as a top-notch fundraiser.

Speculation grew when the AP requested emails from a search consultant. In one, he urged a quick vote on Thrasher to avoid the appearance of a “sham.” Nobody would have known that under Combee’s bill, warns First Amendment Foundation President Barbara Petersen.

“Because of our open government laws, we learned that Thrasher hadn’t even applied, at that point in time.”

The bill shields the names of applicants. The original version made finalists public record 10 days before the winner is selected. The latest version of the bill extends that to 30 days.

Combee says that’s plenty of time for the public to make its voice heard.

“Thirty days is an awful long time for a campaign, or to smear somebody, if that’s your intent.”

Academics talk about their career moves all the time and wouldn’t be afraid of applying elsewhere, Petersen says. She’s worried about the message the bill sends.

“It also presumes that the university presidents and college deans that we’ve elected, excuse me, appointed, so far, are not the best they could be.”

Anyone who doubts the public’s interested in university presidential searches should talk to 61-year-old Howard Stewart. He drove from Daytona Beach to Tallahassee for the committee hearing.

“I’ve been a little bit concerned about Florida beginning to get a little bit of a reputation for the politicization of the higher education system, which concerns me.”

Combee’s bill has two more committee stops before reaching the floor.