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Opponents Of Closed Presidential Searches Rally Outside Senate Chambers

University Presidential searches are done out in the open in Florida. Once a person applies, their resume is usually accessible and can be reviewed by anyone. Supporters claim the transparency can scare away the best available options. Those against the measure lined up outside the Senate chambers in a last bid to defeat the bill.

That chanting is what Senators heard as they went into their chambers Tuesday. It’s a group of Floridians united by the AFL-CIO of Florida. The group was led by AFL-CIO legislative policy director Rich Templin.

“This is the sixth time this bill has been filed, we got involved because we represent thousands of faculty, and staff, and workers at these institutions," Templin said. "But once we were involved, once our members got involved, they realized that this was far bigger than a labor issue or union issue this was a fundamental issue about our constitutional right to open records and open meetings.”

Templin says the thought of university president’s being chosen without public input is worrisome because they control a large portion of state tax dollars.

“University presidents are the most powerful unelected people in our state. Collectively they control billions of dollars, they control the lives of tens of thousands of faculty and staff, and then, of course, all of our students," Templin said. "In many places, the universities are the cornerstone of their community. Much like here in Tallahassee, Gainesville and other places.”

Templin thinks the bill could give more power to political appointees that sit on the Board of Trustees.

"If this process is hidden from the public, then political appointees will control the process. It will lead to cronyism, it will lead to corruption and it will really really harm our higher education system," Templin said.

Sponsor of the House bill Rep. Ramon Alexander (D-Tallahassee) says university boards already have that power.

“Right now half of the Board of Trustees at our state universities are appointed by the Governor, and the other half is appointed by the Board of Governors, which are appointed by the Governor," Alexander said. "So right now based on that theory they can pick who they want to pick anyways.”

Alexander says Student Government Association Presidents who sit on the boards currently act as a line of defense to any corruption that takes place.

"If there were to be something where somebody trying to ram something down somebody's throat you have a student body president like me because I was student body president at FAMU, that can go to the newspaper and say this is wrong they’re trying to force something on us," Alexander said.

Alexander was also part of the presidential search for the 10th president of Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University. He says from that experience and talking with former FAMU President Dr. Frederick Humphries he believes the bill is necessary.

“I’ve asked Dr. Humphries numerous times, I’ve asked numerous people in academia, former president’s, this is the circles that I interact in," Alexander said. "There is no way Dr. Humphries would have left Tennessee State University to come to Florida A&M University why because he had stakeholders, his board of trustees, he had doubled enrollment, alumni, boosters were engaged in that process. Our current process puts the state of Florida at a disadvantage.”

Alexander believes allowing the search to be done in a way that doesn’t publicize the candidates’ names will provide high-quality applicants the necessary privacy when applying to lead a state university. He notes the same privilege is given to University Football teams head coaches.

“You tell me the last time a successful Power 5 football coach openly applied for another Power 5 positions. What happens?" Alexander said. "The institutions pick up the phone, by the way, our football coaches make more than our university presidents that are not done in the sunshine, and they pick up the phone and until they know that they have a decent chance then they apply for the job.”

The bill passed the House by a large margin and is ready to be taken up by the Senate at any time. If the measure becomes law presidential searches done after July 1, 2020, it would be done behind the scenes. The measure would require top candidates’ names to be released at least 21 days before any final vote is made.

Blaise Gainey is a State Government Reporter for WFSU News. Blaise hails from Windermere, Florida. He graduated from The School of Journalism at the Florida A&M University. He formerly worked for The Florida Channel, WTXL-TV, and before graduating interned with WFSU News. He is excited to return to the newsroom. In his spare time he enjoys watching sports, Netflix, outdoor activities and anything involving his daughter.