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College & University Presidential Searches Could Soon Be Clouded Under Sunshine Law Exemption Plan

Florida is on the verge of turning the lights off on presidential searches at public colleges and universities. The move to shield most candidates who apply for the schools’ top job comes after years of battles on the issue. Supporters of the plan say the state’s open records laws keep good people away because they don’t want employers to know they’re job hunting. 

This battle over presidential searches and the sunshine law has bubbled in the state for years.:

“This gives us an opportunity to increase our pool of applicants,” former Republican Sen. Alan Hays argued back in 2015. 

“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,"  Former Florida Board of Regents Chancellor Charlie Reed said in 2014. 

“I think the goal of this bill is to get the best possible people to apply for these positions and don’t have to worry about their names being released," Republican Rep. Chris Latvala recently told his colleagues as he pitched the 2020 version of the plan to close presidential searches at state colleges and universities. 

On the other side of the fight have been faculty and staff at the state’s schools, along with the First Amendment Foundation. They worry closing the searches will lead to cronyism--insiders getting the top jobs. For years, Florida politicians past and present have been able to secure jobs at state schools. The most-high profile of them is former Republican State Senator John Thrasher, now President of Florida State University. Thrasher was chosen for the job in a public search, and while messy, the United Faculty of Florida’s Marshall Ogletree says he’s been successful.

“What’s wrong with the leadership we have? What’s wrong with President Thrasher? What’s wrong with President Currell at USF?” He asked.

These are very powerful government positions. You might have a four, five, $6 million budget you’re responsible for," said Frank LoMonte, with the University of Florida's Brechner Center for Freedom of Information It's researched the effect of closed presidential searches. LoMonte's found people hired in closed searchers are often insiders or end up having short-lived presidencies.  Public colleges and universities tend to be major employers in their communities, and LoMonte says leadership decisions impact more than just the school.

“You’ve got tens of thousands students and employees you’re responsible for. You’re supervising policing, healthcare, housing, healthcare, food services—it’s like you’re the mayor of a city. And we don’t usually hire mayors in closed-door processes."

“I think number one is, making sure the search committee is representative of the important stakeholders and constituent groups that would like to have a say in the process…like faculty, staff, students, community members," said Zach Smith of the higher education search firm WhittKeifer. 

Smith says there are ways to strike a balance, and one way is to broaden the number and types of people involved in the decision making.

Florida’s bill calls for the names of finalists to be revealed prior to interviews being conducted or a job offer extended.

Among the Democrats voting in favor of the measure is Tallahassee Rep.Ramon Alexander, a graduate of Florida A&M University. That school has seen a significant amount of presidential turnover in the past decade. Alexander argues not every school can attract a John Thrasher. Alexander hopes the measure will lure top talent to smaller schools. 

“Everyone is not Florida State…the University of Florida. We have other state universities and they matter too. They may not have the brand name or national name, but Florida Gulf Coast--all those other schools, the University of North Florida, they need [leaders] too."

The secrecy bill comes as Miami-Dade College and the University of Central Florida, are in the midst of searches for new presidents. Those are two of the state’s largest schools. 

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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