Help wanted at Florida’s Big 3 universities: a new president

Combine Florida sunshine, stellar academic reputation, fat salary and the ego boost of being called “president” everywhere you go — those are just a few of the perks awaiting whomever replaces Donna Shalala.

So finding a new University of Miami president should be easy, right?

Not necessarily. A quick glance at UM’s two biggest in-state rivals, the University of Florida and Florida State, illustrates how tricky and unpredictable a university presidential search can actually be.

At UF, the school last year abruptly canceled its presidential search — just four days before it was set to pick from the pool of candidates. Outgoing UF President Bernie Machen suddenly changed his mind about retiring, and decided to stick around a little longer. Gov Rick Scott had lobbied Machen to stay on board.

Flash forward to today, and UF is again sifting through presidential resumes. Machen says he’s leaving for good at the end of this year (and the president’s wife is on-record saying the same).

So far, UF has received eight applicants for its top job. Those interested include Abraham Joseph Layon, a director with the Pennsylvania-based Geisinger Health System, Nabeel Jurdia, a provost from American University in the Emirates, and Joseph Glover, UF’s current provost.

At public universities, the presidential search is complicated by Florida’s strong public-records laws. The most-qualified applicants tend to wait until the last minute to apply, in an effort to keep their intentions more discreet. There is no hard deadline for UF’s presidential applicants.

“We’re hopeful to have a president by the end of the year,” said UF spokeswoman Janine Sikes.

As a private university, UM won’t have to deal with those same public-records concerns. But there will be the burden of lofty expectations. In Shalala, who announced this week that she will retire in the spring of 2015, UM has had a leader with national name recognition, political clout, and bona fide academic credentials for the last 14 years. South Florida’s movers and shakers erupted in praise when Shalala announced her plans, with UM Trustee H.T. Smith saying “she’s taken us to rarefied air.”

Who’s going to be the person to follow that?

Meanwhile, at FSU, the presidential search has been criticized as “illegitimate” by students and faculty. From the outset of the search process, observers complained that the university seemed to favor State Sen. John Thrasher above all other candidates — in other words, the fix was in.

Thrasher is a powerful Republican lawmaker and FSU alum who has never worked in academia. His candidacy for FSU president is but the latest example of politicians pursuing a second act in higher education. In Florida and across the country, politicians have been making this career switch for decades.

There are some skills, such as fund-raising, that can make politicians a good fit for the job. But Thrasher’s staunchly conservative track record has proved polarizing. His thin resume is another sticking point.

Student and faculty representatives on the search committee unanimously voted to remove Thrasher from consideration, but they were in the minority. The tension at FSU has been so enormous that the private consultant coordinating the search process resigned. Nonetheless, Thrasher emerged Wednesday as one of four presidential finalists currently being considered.

Dean Colson, who is part of the state university system Board of Governors, said FSU’s missteps have in fact “damaged the national reputation” of the university.

For now, UM is saying precious little about its strategy, other than designating Royal Caribbean Cruises CEO Richard Fain as head of the presidential search committee. Fain is vice chair of UM’s trustees. The university declined to make Fain available for an interview this week, and would not even confirm whether or not a national search will take place.

Given the prominence of the UM presidency, one is expected.

The chair of UM’s trustees, Stuart Miller, has promised an “inclusive process” that “will seek valuable input from the greater University of Miami community.” If that happens, it would be a departure from how Shalala was picked.

Back in 2000, UM’s wooing of Shalala was largely done in secret. The university’s presidential search was so hush-hush that UM’s student newspaper published an editorial asking “the University community not be cut out” of the selection process.

Those concerns over the lack of transparency quickly died away because of the excitement over landing a major catch like Shalala, a former Clinton administration cabinet member with strong academic credentials. But if an underwhelming candidate had been picked, that secretive process might have received more criticism.

This time around, there is also social media to contend with. Soon after Shalala announced her retirement, Twitter users were already speculating on possible replacements.

Miami attorney Brian Tannebaum wondered “who will be the first bored, ambitious and unqualified politician to announce they believe they should be the next president of UM.”

Others on Twitter suggested that former President George W. Bush should be the next UM president — or perhaps Condoleezza Rice. Also receiving at least one vote: R& B musician George Clinton, of Parliament-Funkadelic fame.

When questioned by the Miami Herald. some big-name politicians voluntarily took themselves out of the running.

“Governor Bush is not interested in becoming the president of the University of Miami,” said the e-mail from a representative of Jeb Bush.

In a statement, Miami Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen also said thanks, but no thanks.

“Although I earned a doctorate from UM and am a dedicated Canes fan who roots for my team during every game, I am committed to representing and serving South Florida in Congress,” she said.

Miami Herald Staff Writers Marc Caputo and Charles Rabin also contributed to this report.