Miami Dade College faculty warn of an effort to rig the search for a new president

MDC President Padrón celebrated at graduation during ‘bittersweet’ send off

During his final graduation day, Miami Dade College President Eduardo Padrón received a heartfelt sendoff from the students and community members Saturday in Coral Gables. He will step down from his position in August after serving since 1995.
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During his final graduation day, Miami Dade College President Eduardo Padrón received a heartfelt sendoff from the students and community members Saturday in Coral Gables. He will step down from his position in August after serving since 1995.

A push by new members of the Miami Dade College Board of Trustees to drastically lower the bar to become the college’s next president is fueling speculation that the search to replace the retiring Eduardo Padrón is being rigged to favor a specific candidate.

On Thursday, the seven-member board will decide whether to eliminate prerequisites set in place by the prior board of trustees to ensure the next college president will hold at least a terminal degree — the highest degree in their field — and have a minimum six years of experience in education administration.

The special meeting, scheduled at the behest of three of the four trustees recently appointed by Gov. Ron DeSantis, will take place four days before a deadline for applicants to submit their résumés. The search has been going on for three months.

The newest trustees pushed to reconsider the criteria for the job last week, questioning whether the college is preventing capable but unconventional applicants from being among the 400 or so who have applied to succeed Padrón. But the idea of an 11th-hour change is raising alarms among faculty, who warn that the search appears as if it is being massaged to favor a specific person.

“The integrity of the entire selection process is at risk,” Mark Richard, the retired head of the United Faculty of Miami Dade College, wrote Friday in a union letter addressed to the seven trustees. “Respectfully, the Board of Trustees needs to push back on those who might seek to capture the presidency as political spoils.”

Richard said he “perhaps naively” believes the process to be “above board,” and did not suggest who might benefit from the change. But in his letter, he referenced rumors that have persisted for months that politically connected trustees are angling to land a specific candidate: “Was the Miami power structure heading to a new low in an effort to actually politicize the selection of a college president — not at just any college, but at a national treasure of higher education?”

The application process has already been modified once to benefit certain unnamed candidates who apparently want to keep their names secret as long as possible. Last month, a selection committee led by Board Chairman Bernie Navarro gave a headhunting firm the discretion to add its own preferred candidates to a list of finalists who applied by a June 3 deadline.

But Navarro — who has already defended a decision to consider candidates who hold a juris doctorate as opposed to a Ph.D. — said in an interview that giving some candidates extra time to apply doesn’t materially change the process. On the other hand, he said the former board of trustees deliberated the minimum requirements back in February, and the college’s headhunter and selection committee have put in considerable effort since then.

“To undo that would be very difficult for me,” Navarro said.

But as chairman, Navarro said he also has to acknowledge the desires of the four new trustees, whom DeSantis hastened to put in place at the urging of the previously constituted board. And three of the four new appointees were clear last week that they think the college ought to consider executive-type candidates who may not come from academia.

“I am not comfortable as a new trustee that we did not explore a broader pool and a more diversified candidate set,” said new trustee Michael Bileca, who spearheaded Republican education priorities during his time in the Florida House.

Marcell Felipe, an attorney appointed by DeSantis and sworn in as a trustee last week, said he agrees with Richard that the search should not be politicized, but disagrees that new trustees are doing anything untoward by questioning the process. As it stands, the college hopes to name a new president by July to replace Padrón when he retires in August.

“I can certainly delegate my duties but not my responsibility. That’s a rubber stamp vote and I’m not going to do that,” said Felipe, arguing that another DeSantis appointee to the MDC board, Carlos Migoya, has done a good job as CEO of Jackson Health System despite his prior lack of experience in healthcare.

“I’m just saying let’s take a step back and let’s open this up a little bit more to get a better pool of candidates. Or, alternatively, let’s slow this thing down. I just got here.”

The Miami Dade College Board of Trustees will meet at 8 a.m. Thursday in Room 2106 at the downtown Miami Wolfson Campus. Finalists are scheduled to be interviewed June 19 and 20 by a selection committee.