Fabiola Santiago

With Padrón on way out, Republicans stage political takeover of Miami Dade College | Opinion

Miami Dade College is still looking for a new president

Miami Dade College is still looking for a president after the Board of Trustees voted on Wednesday to scrap the process and start over again to find a replacement for outgoing president Eduardo Padrón.
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Miami Dade College is still looking for a president after the Board of Trustees voted on Wednesday to scrap the process and start over again to find a replacement for outgoing president Eduardo Padrón.

People who love Miami Dade College are outraged — and rightly so.

With respected President Eduardo Padrón on his way out, some of the city’s most influential Republicans are staging a shameful political takeover of the beloved institution, one of the largest colleges in the nation — and pure Miami treasure.

A lot is at stake.

Not only is the future and legacy of the college as an independent institution in jeopardy, but the college is a hub of uncensored art and culture, the host of prestigious events like the Miami Book Fair and the Miami International Film Festival. MDC also runs the iconic Freedom Tower as a museum and special event venue, a downtown property deeded to the college by the Cuban-American family that bought it and coveted by many in this town.

But by turning the professional search for the next president into a political circus, the college’s Board of Trustees and Gov. Ron DeSantis, who appointed all but two members, are putting the Miami bedrock in jeopardy.

What’s happening with the search may be legal — the result of a gubernatorial election, as one board member boasted to me — but it reeks of betrayal to this multicultural community, its immigrant identity, and the principle of delivering to young people ideologically uncompromising education.

A “hijacking,” Mike Fernández, a health magnate and major college benefactor calls the trustees’ actions. “MDC should not be used as a political tool.”

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The board has been stacked with Republicans invested in personal political agendas and conflicts of interest by DeSantis with the help of his Cuban-American lieutenant governor from Miami, Jeanette Nuñez, who co-chairs the Latinos for Trump campaign (she called him a “con man” in 2016 when he was running against her mentor, Sen. Marco Rubio, but that’s another story).

With a nearly unanimous vote Wednesday, these political players scrapped months of hard work — and voted to start all over again, claiming in public that the search hadn’t been wide enough, and in private conversations with me, that it had been steered by Padrón, who won’t let go of the institution he took to national prominence.

The vote opens the door for the Board of Trustees to carry out the wishes of a few powerful local and state politicians to appoint to the prestigious post a Republican Cuban-American politician out of office. It’s the usual amiguito shenanigans of Miami over the people’s best interests, the city at its worst.

These players want a big-name Republican politico in the running.

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Although most board members I spoke to initially deny this is their aim, they end up confirming that they’re looking for a “big name” and all the candidates mentioned are Republican politicians.

The most bandied about name: Former state Rep. José Félix Díaz, a big Trump supporter and Columbia Law School graduate who lost a Florida Senate race to Democrat Annette Taddeo and is now a high-paid lobbyist for a leading firm.

Likewise, Rick Scott’s lieutenant governor, Carlos López-Cantera, and retired congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen were mentioned. Of the three, only Ros-Lehtinen has a doctorate degree but she told me she’s happy with her new job as senior adviser at a Washington law firm. López-Cantera has a bachelor’s in business administration from the University of Miami. The requirements initially called for a doctorate degree, but the trustees changed it to a “terminal” degree, highest in your field, only one of the moves they’ve made to facilitate a politician’s candidacy .

The only hold-out vote in this travesty of opening the search for political reasons was board chairman Bernie Navarro, a Scott appointee who is a different kind of Republican: He thinks independently. He embraces bipartisanship.

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Bernie Navarro, chairman of the Board of Trustees at Miami Dade College, looks on before attempting to vote on a candidate to replace outgoing President Eduardo Padrón on July 24, 2019. To his right, board members Anay Abraham and Marcell Felipe. Al Diaz adiaz@miamiherald.com

But most importantly, he has come to know MDC inside out and understands the need for doctorate credentials and independence to run a complex institution, an asset not for one group but for all of Miami.

Navarro was at the forefront of the months-long search for candidates that engaged a wide range of stakeholders in the community in conversations about the needs of the college. The search committee boiled down a long list of candidates from 49 to four with MDC provost and executive vice president Lenore Rodicio rising above all as a favorite. She’s a registered Republican. Padrón supports her.

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Miami-Dade College Executive Vice President and Provost Lenore Rodicio. Miami Dade College

“They [the politicians] don’t hold a candle to Rodicio,” a trustee admitted to me in an off-the-record interview. “But we’re not going to let Padrón handpick his successor.”

The latter was a feeling echoed by others.

By saying so, board members confirmed motive.

This political game with the college’s future is also a long-standing vendetta against Padrón, who stood up to Scott’s massive budget cuts to education and to the four Miami Republican legislators who in 2014 denied MDC the opportunity to ask voters for a half-penny tax to fund needed repairs and technological improvements at the college.

All Padrón asked was for the lawmakers to allow Miami-Dade voters to decide the issue, but Frank Artiles (later forced to resign for racist comments to an African American legislator), Michael Bileca, Carlos Trujillo and José Oliva (now House Speaker) wouldn’t budge.

Like Scott, they had other ideologically driven plans, like teaming up with conservatives from the North to fund private education initiatives with public dollars — and to propel their careers Marco Rubio-style.

In a rare unfiltered moment, Padrón called them “bullies” and “ideologues” in a meeting with the Herald — which they were and still are — and they’ve been on a campaign to oust Padrón since, despite the fact he immediately apologized.

Fast-forward to DeSantis’ victory and Padrón’s decision to retire, and guess who the DeSantis-Nuñez team appointed to the MDC board that will choose the next president?

One of the aggrieved former lawmakers, Bileca.

He’s one of the several members on the MDC board who are deeply involved in private education.

How can people invested in the growth of private education represent the best interests of a public college? As a lawmaker, Bileca pushed legislation that benefited that industry because, as I’ve said before, Florida’s ethical standards are a joke.

Dirty, ugly GOP politics are what’s driving the search for leadership at one of our prized institutions.

And this isn’t happening in a vacuum.

Theirs is a calibrated move, long in the making, to ideologically intervene in public education. The target of this larger conservative movement is not only MDC, but colleges and universities perceived by conservatives to have a “liberal” bent.

“Colleges and universities need reform,” new board member Marcell Felipe, one of the principal instigators of Wednesday’s vote told me. “The ratio of conservatives to liberals is 12 to 1. That’s not fair.”

That tells you all you need to know about this shameful show.

Award-winning columnist Fabiola Santiago has been writing about all things Miami since 1980, when the Mariel boatlift became her first front-page story. A Cuban refugee child of the Freedom Flights, she’s also the author of essays, short fiction, and the novel “Reclaiming Paris.”
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