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Sunshine Law Complaints, Politicians Key Features Of University Leadership Searches

Florida CFO Jeff Atwater is one of several finalists to head Florida Atlantic University

In the past few years, there have been several high-level vacancies at Florida’s public universities. And in many cases university trustees have expressed dissatisfaction with replacement candidates.

Such was the case at Florida A&M, where, shortly before naming Cornell University’s Elmira Mangum to the post, trustee Karl White complained about Florida’s open record laws:

“This was my 6th presidential, in some form, search. I have to say this one was the  most difficult ... based upon the constraints of the Sunshine Law," he said.

That’s a criticism also offereda few years ago when Florida State University was searchingfor a replacement for then-president T.K. Wetherell. FSU eventually found former National Center of Atmospheric Research administrator Eric Barron.

The state’s open record laws make candidates’ names and resumes public record. Now there’s an effort underway to make those applications off-limits to public eyes. House Bill 135would exempt searches for public university presidents and other high-level university jobs from the state’s sunshine law, a move some see as a good thing:

“There are a lot of leaders in higher education that are sitting presidents, that don’t want their name in a newspaper saying they’re interested in a different job knowing they’re going to be disappointing people," says former Florida Board of Regents and California State University System Chancellor Charlie Reed. "That eliminates having to make public several good candidates and the best systems I know don’t make public their final group of candidates for that reason.” 

But First Amendment Foundation President Barbara Petersen disagrees.

"There is a presumption that we need this exemption because we’re not getting a deep pool of well-qualified candidates. That presumption is, I think, kind of absurd," Petersen said. " If you look at the university presidents in place now. President Barron, the FAMU president—they were hired in the sunshine, and what HB 135 says we don’t have the best presidents we could get. I want them to find me a better president than president Barron.”

Furthermore, Peterson fears such an exemption could be expanded to local political searches as well, dealing a serious blow to the law.

While some people may be hesitant to jump into a presidential search because it exposes them to scrutiny, the circumstances don’t appear to scare away politicians. Take the search at Florida Atlantic University, where state Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater is a finalist.

Atwater may be the latest politician eyeing a presidency, but he’s not the first. FSU’s former president T.K. Whetherell was a Florida House Speaker. University of North Florida President John Delaney was mayor of Jacksonville. University of Miami President Donna Shalala was the U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services. Former state representative Marjorie Turnbull, now a FAMU trustee, says experience with sunshine laws may, in fact, play a part:

“One of the reasons I think Florida universities end up with people in political office... is they’re accustomed to the Sunshine Law, so they don’t mind the scrutiny. But if you’re a sitting president, you’re not going to put your name out there and have your board of trustees say, ‘why aren’t you interested in staying...”

Others say at a time when budgets are tight and universities in competition with each other, finding a politician with connections for the top isn’t a bad idea. But Charlie Reed says that too comes with its own set of issues:

“I’ve seen institutions get people with no experience with politicians or legislatures and they just get eaten alive, then the faculty and students turn against them. On the other hand, I’ve seen leaders on the political side do well with legislatures and community, but not do well having faculty and student support.”

Florida Atlantic University could name its presidential choice soon. Former U.S. Senator George LeMieux is also among the finalists.

Follow @HatterLynn

Lynn Hatter is a Florida A&M University graduate with a bachelor’s degree in journalism. Lynn has served as reporter/producer for WFSU since 2007 with education and health care issues as her key coverage areas.  She is an award-winning member of the Capital Press Corps and has participated in the NPR Kaiser Health News Reporting Partnership and NPR Education Initiative. 

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