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A bill shielding public college and university presidential searches awaits the governor

Florida State University historic buildings in Tallahassee, Florida
Henryk Sadura
Florida State University historic buildings in Tallahassee, Florida

The Florida House on Friday passed a long-debated bill aimed at shielding information about applicants to become presidents of state colleges and universities, putting it in a position to go to Gov. Ron DeSantis.

The House voted 86-26 to approve the measure (SB 520), easily surpassing a two-thirds vote that is legally required to pass public-records exemptions. The Senate passed the bill last month in a 28-11 vote.

House sponsor Sam Garrison, R-Fleming Island, said boards of trustees for colleges and universities have been “pushing” for the measure.

“The question was asked earlier, is this necessary? Why does this keep coming back? Well, the reason it keeps coming back isn’t because the politicians are pushing it. It’s because our board[s] of trustees are pushing it,” Garrison said. “There’s a reason that every single chairman of all 12 of our state universities have publicly gone on the record and said we need this.”

The proposal would exempt from disclosure “personal identifying information” of people applying to lead colleges and universities until near the end of searches, when a group of finalists is determined or 21 days before a president is chosen.

Information about finalists would be released. Demographic information on the ages, races and genders of all applicants “who met the minimum qualifications” for positions also would be made public at that time.

The measure passed as five Florida universities are in various stages of the process of searching for new presidents. Those schools are the University of South Florida, the University of North Florida, the University of Florida, Florida International University and Florida Gulf Coast University.

But Democrats argued the bill is not necessary.

“There’s been no feedback that this process today doesn’t work. I know that [there are] many openings for university (presidents) right now. No one in the past has said this has been necessary, except this legislative body,” Rep. Anna Eskamani, D-Orlando, said.

The bill also would provide a public-meetings exemption for searches until finalists are determined unless meetings are held for the purposes of establishing qualifications for the position or “any compensation framework” for the job.

Critics of the measure also have argued that shielding applicants’ information could tip the scales to favor politically connected candidates.

“This bill will just inject more politics into a process that should be open and transparent,” Rep. Ben Diamond, D-St. Petersburg, said.

But bill proponents said the current system of applicants’ information being public record has a “chilling effect” on potential candidates who could fear repercussions from their current employers.

Rep. Amber Mariano, R-Hudson, echoed other supporters by arguing that the measure would help to bring the broadest pool of applicants possible.

“What this bill does is, it just opens the pot of people that we can have applying to these positions. People that are in the private sector, people that may fear losing their job if they apply for these positions,” Mariano said. “We are protecting them.”