TALLAHASSEE — The Florida Senate on Thursday approved a proposal to withhold information about candidates vying to become college and university presidents, a move that could change a presidential search system that five of Florida’s 12 universities are preparing to launch.
The idea behind the proposal is that secrecy during the early stages of the search process will allow universities and state colleges to attract better applicants who will feel comfortable applying, knowing that their names will not become public. , including for their current bosses.
“It’s going to create a better process for the state,” said Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Saint Petersburg, the godfather of Senate Bill 520.
But critics, including groups from Democrats and faculty unions, say the argument is a “talking point” and that the effort will “invite further politicization of our college and university campuses.”
“We won’t get a significant difference in the number of qualified applicants. Instead, we will have more insider applicants and risk losing the pre-eminence of our state university and college system,” said Sen. Lori Berman, D-Boynton Beach. “Please vote no on this bill and vote for transparency.”
The five universities that are already looking for new presidents or will soon do so are Florida International University, University of South Florida, University of Florida, University of North Florida and Florida Gulf Coast University.
Alberto Pimentel, the head of SP&A Executive Search, which works to help USF find its next president and helped Florida State University with its search last year, argued that confidentiality at the start of the search process would help attract more qualified candidates.
The vote of 28 to 11 was bipartisan. Senate Democrats had enough votes to kill the proposed exemption for records, but four caucus members voted with the Republican majority in favor of the bill.
Some Democrats lamented the lack of a “team” effort against the measure, which they criticized in part for going against Florida’s tradition of maintaining transparency in government proceedings. But the measure, which has long been debated in the Legislature, received support from Democrats who said they believe the process would allow Florida universities and colleges to attract a wider pool of applicants.
The Senate proposal would keep names and any other information that could identify nominees confidential until a final pool of nominees is established, or 21 days before a nominee is chosen for the position.
A similar bill in the House would reduce that time to 14 days, a detail Brandes said he would not budge on.
“You have my commitment that we will stand firm as the Senate with 21 days if it goes through the Senate today,” Brandes told his Senate colleagues, some of whom were concerned about negotiations with the House.
Shortly after the measure passed the Senate, House Speaker Chris Sprows told reporters that he was unaware of the differences between the House and Senate measures, but said said he supported the concept and called the current system a “weird process”.
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“There’s no other job there, where someone says to their employer who is currently paying their bills, paying for their family’s health care and health insurance, ‘Hey, I’m going to go get a another job,'” Sprows said. “These are massive organizations tasked with educating students and preparing our workforce. We need the best people at the helm.”
Sprows added that if the measure helps Florida get better applicants, “then I’m all for it.”
If approved by the Legislative Assembly and signed by Governor Ron DeSantis, the measure will go into effect immediately. The push for immediacy is no coincidence.
Brandes was quick to say he hopes the measure can help universities as they begin the process of finding new leaders.
FSU’s presidential search last year was marred by controversy when one of the nominees, Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran, was the subject of a harsh letter from the FSU Regional Credentialing Board. university after the first round of interviews.
The Southern Association of Colleges and Schools has raised concerns about potential conflicts with Corcoran’s bid. Corcoran is a member of the board of governors of the state university system, which should have ultimately approved the nominee selected by the FSU board of trustees.
Eventually, FSU offered the position to Richard McCullough, vice provost for research at Harvard University.
On Thursday, Senate Republicans and some Democrats said they wish previous academic presidential searches had produced more nationally recognized candidates.
“If you’re all watching Florida State University right now, I want you to ask yourself: How many national presidents have you seen apply for the job? Nothing. None of them did. Why? Because of their fear of being ousted and losing their jobs,” said Senate Vice President for Education Shevrin Jones, D-West Park.
Jones further argued that the bill does not prevent any candidate from going on social media and publicly broadcasting that they themselves are a candidate.
Sen. Ray Rodrigues, R-Estero, argued the bill was needed to allow Florida universities to compete.
“We’re going to be competing with half a dozen other top universities across the country who are going to seek presidents at the same time as us.”
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