Link to article: https://www.orlandosentinel.com/features/education/school-zone/os-ne-university-president-searches-bill-20190404-story.html
By Annie Martin - Contact Reporter
The names of applicants for president at Florida public universities and colleges could be shielded from public view — a change critics say would result in the hiring of some of the state's most powerful education leaders under a shroud of secrecy.
A bill that would hide the identities of candidates for president and provost positions — and make meetings where applicants are discussed closed to the public — won approval Thursday from the Florida House State Affairs Committee. Under the proposal, the identities of applicants “on whom a final action or vote is to be taken” would be released 30 days before a decision. If enacted, the law could affect UCF’s next presidential search, which is planned to start later this year.
“Many, if not most, of the applicants for those jobs are employed at another job at the time they apply and disclosure of their applications could jeopardize their current positions,” said state Rep. Chris Latvala, R-Clearwater.
If lawmakers approve the exemption for university and college leaders, they could eventually expand it to other public officials, such as city manager and county administrators, said Barbara Petersen, president of the First Amendment Foundation.
“This will be the Mount Everest of slippery slopes,” she told the Orlando Sentinel.
The committee bill (PBC SAC 19-02) is intended to allow institutions to attract “the most experienced and desirable pool of qualified applicants.” There is no companion bill in the Senate.
At the meeting, several others spoke in opposition to the bill, including Jeremiah Tattersall of Gainesville, field staff for the North Central Florida Central Labor Council. He pointed out that his local state college, Santa Fe College in Gainesville, is just starting its search for its next leader.
“I understand what the chair just said about people being afraid of applying for a job and that their employees would know they’re considering leaving,” said Tattersall, referring to Latvala's comments. “I don’t know if we want those types of leaders at our institutions.”
No one from the public spoke in favor of the bill.
Florida laws don’t currently exempt applications for university and college posts from records laws and the meetings where trustees or search committees discuss candidates are open to the public. The committee’s proposal follows recent unsuccessful attempts to make searches more secretive, including a 2017 bill that won approval from the House.
In 2015, then-state Sen. Alan Hays, a Lake County Republican, put forth a bill that would have exempted information about applicants for top university posts from open-records laws and called for the release of names of finalists at least 10 days prior to selection. The bill died in committee.
At the University of Central Florida, trustees selected then-provost Dale Whittaker to lead the university in March 2018 after a five-month search that yielded more than 40 applications, most of them from other states. He started July 1 but resigned in February amid controversy about the use, or planned use, of unspent operating funds totaling $85 million on construction.
Seminole State College also completed a presidential search in 2018. Trustees appointed Georgia Lorenz, the former vice president for academic affairs for Santa Monica College in California in April from a pool of 56 applicants.
Even under the current rules, institutions have been criticized for not conducting searches with enough transparency, including the University of South Florida, which used a search consultant and shielded the names of potential applicants from public view. Trustees selected Steven Currall last month.
And the University of Florida also caught flack for its 2014 search, when it booked hotel rooms under phony names, used charter jets, communicated with private email accounts and used codes to avoid identifying finalists publicly, according to the Gainesville Sun. UF ultimately hired Kent Fuchs.
Latvala said half the states provide some sort of public-records exemptions for candidates applying for university president posts.
But Petersen said universities and colleges in Florida have no problem attracting strong candidates for top posts. She pointed to the example of Florida State College in Jacksonville, which on Wednesday named John Avendano of Illinois, who has 30 years of community college experience, as its next president.
Karen Morian, president of United Faculty of Florida and an instructor at Florida State College, said during the committee meeting the institution received 74 applicants, including 71 from out of state.
“Florida has one the best open-government laws in the country,” she said. “Why would we want to follow the example of states that don’t have good laws?”
Rich Templin, legislative and political director of the Florida AFL-CIO, which represents more than 500 labor union locals, agreed.
“We are hiring the best, most qualified people as it is,” said Templin, an adjunct instructor at Florida State University. “There is no problem. There is no shortage of qualified candidates for these positions in the state of Florida.”
And, he said, university and college presidents are “some of the most powerful unelected officials in the state of Florida.”
“If there is anyone whose search process, whose selection process should be in the sunshine,” Templin said, “it is these leaders.”
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