Florida Politics

House votes to make secret the applicants for top college, university posts

Florida Department of Education in Tallahassee.
Florida Department of Education in Tallahassee. Tampa Bay Times

Floridians would have no way to know everyone who applies to be the next president or other top administrator of a public college or university, under a proposed exemption in the state’s public records law that passed the House on Wednesday.

Lawmakers voted 103-11 to approve the carve-out, which was sought after a former Republican lawmaker unsuccessfully applied to be Florida Gulf Coast University’s next president this year.

It’s unlikely the bill (HB 351) will become law this spring, because the Senate version was never taken up in committee for senators to consider. Nevertheless, the measure has raised concerns.

The exemption would greatly diminish the transparency of how colleges and universities fill influential positions — which lawmakers themselves frequently apply for after, or even before, they leave the Legislature. (For example, Florida State University President John Thrasher is a former House speaker and state senator.)

Proponents say public job searches bar the best candidates from applying for top jobs at colleges and universities.

“The majority [of states] don’t have this Sunshine rule, requiring all applicants — even those that are not qualified — to be announced to the public,” said Naples Republican Rep. Bob Rommel, the bill sponsor. “When we’re competing for our universities, we need to make sure everybody possible that has talent applies here. We can’t let fear be a deterrent to come to Florida.”

Deeming the issue a “public necessity,” HB 351 specifically would make “confidential” the names of individuals who apply to be a public college or university president, vice president, provost or dean. Search committees and school trustees would be able to review applicants first in secret; meetings would not be open to the public until the committee defines “a final group of applicants.”

The names of those finalists — which could be as few as one person — would then have to be released and made public for 21 days before the university or college board casts a final vote to make the hire.

All of the “no” votes Wednesday came from Democrats. (Miami Democratic Rep. Robert Asencio accidentally voted in favor. He immediately switched his vote to “no” after the voting was finalized; however, the official tally will still count him as a “yes.”)

“This is a well-intended but terrible bill,” Rep. Joseph Geller, D-Aventura, said. “You could have 100 applications and give two [names]. This is the public’s business and the public’s money. We have a Sunshine Law in this state, and we need to respect it.”

Rommel and fellow bill sponsor Rep. Byron Donalds, R-Naples, have argued an open hiring process, as Florida colleges and universities have had, requires applicants to alert their employers of their desire to leave. They say that jeopardizes applicants’ job security and has a “chilling effect” that reduces the number of candidates who apply.

Rommel and Donalds also complained that open searches subject applicants to what they view as unwarranted public attention; they’ve cited former Republican state Rep. Tom Grady as an example.

Grady attracted intense scrutiny in applying earlier this year to be FGCU’s next president, which is near Rommel’s and Donalds’ districts in southwest Florida.

“He was subject to a political campaign by staff and by students, and the primary talking point was, ‘he was a businessman and we don’t need a businessman running a university,’ ” Donalds said during an Education Committee hearing on the bill this month.

Grady — a former interim president of Citizens Insurance with limited career experience in education — is a close friend of Republican Gov. Rick Scott. Scott previously appointed Grady to the FGCU Board of Trustees and then, 18 months ago, to the State Board of Education, which oversees K-12 public schools and the state college system.

“What this bill provides, it allows people to actually apply for the job and not have themselves be subject to the public scrutiny, but only to the scrutiny of the selection committee,” Donalds said.

Tallahassee Rep. Ramon Alexander — one of many Democrats to join Republicans in support — said he participated in a presidential search as a former trustee at Florida A&M University. “I’ve seen firsthand how the talent is drained in the state of Florida because of these challenges,” he said.

The First Amendment Foundation and the United Faculty of Florida — which represents more than 20,000 faculty members and graduate assistants — were among opponents to the bill. The faculty union said there is “no compelling interest” for such an exemption in the Sunshine Law, and the foundation (of which the Miami Herald and Tampa Bay Times are members) called the justification for it “speculative.”

“In reality, Florida’s universities have had great success in hiring university and college presidents in the Sunshine,” foundation president Barbara Petersen wrote in a letter to Rommel. “University of Florida’s W. Kent Fuchs and Dr. John C. Hitt from the University of Central Florida, are model examples — and both were employed by other universities at the time of their application.”

She added that the bill “presumes that our current — and former — presidents, provosts and deans are not the best they could be.”

Other opponents argued that leaders of colleges and universities should be prepared for the spotlight and public scrutiny, citing the high-profile nature of the job those applicants seek. Critics also said that the public has a right to vet the entire applicant pool, not just finalists.

“It is vital that we know not just who was selected at the end, but who was not selected,” Rich Templin, a lobbyist for the Florida AFL-CIO, said in the Education Committee hearing. “These are some of the most powerful unelected positions in the state of Florida, not only by their salaries but the lives that they influence and the resources they have at their command.”

The proposal advanced through the House this spring during a legislative session in which Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O’Lakes, had vowed to emphasize and improve transparency in government.

Kristen M. Clark: 850-222-3095, kclark@miamiherald.com, @ByKristenMClark