Secret college presidential searches in FL would open door to corruption, nepotism, cronyism

January 28, 2022 2:09 pm

University of Florida. Credit: UF website.

Tallahassee is at it again. They want to fix something that ain’t broke.

Once again, Florida’s politicians intend to cut the public out of decisions that affect the local economy and the learning conditions of their local state college or university without any evidence of a problem. In the process, they threaten to make a degree from the state of Florida worthless.

The University of Florida, our flagship institution, is already under scrutiny by accreditors for muzzling experts and applying pressure to destroy data in an attempt to keep certain politicians in Tallahassee happy.

Once again, certain legislators want to exert more control — not less — over the thoughts, actions and beliefs of local Floridians who are seeking higher education to improve their lives and the lives of their families.

Last year’s “Viewpoint Discrimination” law, HB 233, apparently wasn’t enough; it wasn’t enough to intimidate students, faculty and staff into avoiding beliefs that might offend some in power.

Once again, for the eighth year in a row, “secrecy in university and college presidential searches” bills (SB 520/HB 703) are moving rapidly through the Florida Legislature, and once again, the local stakeholders in the university and college systems are left wondering — why?

Supporters of these bills claim that allowing presidential searches to exist in the Sunshine (as they have for decades) stops highly qualified candidates at institutions outside the state from applying, out of fear that their current institution would discover the application and disapprove. But when asked to provide examples, they are never able to do so. Not one.

Florida State University President Richard McCullough. Credit: FSU website.

Instead, the examples we do have are of a Florida higher education system that is ranked as one of the best in the country and the world, one in which we are consistently able to place highly qualified applicants in university and college president positions (see the recent hire of a Harvard vice provost as president of Florida State University).

The juxtaposition of these ideas is nonsensical. Florida can’t be struggling to attract qualified candidates to run our higher education institutions and simultaneously be top ranked in the United States.

The real question at the heart of this bill is this: Why do the needs of a handful of unknown, unnamed out-of-state applicants overrule the right of Florida citizens to know, understand and oversee the use of public funds in our public higher education institutions? Sunshine is the best disinfectant, after all.

The answer lies in who legislators want to install in these positions.

Gov. Ron DeSantis at a news conference Nov. 10, 2021. Screenshot/Gov. Ron DeSantis Facebook

As written, the bill only requires that a final list of candidates, or even simply the single final candidate, be revealed to the public. This means that friends of the governor and well-connected politicians without higher education experience could apply for jobs where the hiring committees are stacked with mega donors, and when the final candidate is revealed, it will appear as if only unqualified politicians applied for these jobs.

There will not be time to unearth allegations of wrongdoing or incompetence, to assess conflicts of interest, and it certainly won’t be enough time to understand whether these candidates could be a good, successful fit for the institution.

Their hiring will be clouded in secrecy, undermining their legitimacy before day one. No one would be any wiser that dozens of extremely qualified applicants were passed over, while our university and college president jobs become pits of corruption, nepotism, cronyism, and are reduced to mere exchanges of political favors.

How does this help students of all ages and backgrounds, from the Keys to Pensacola, who are looking to become their best selves? How does this serve Floridians’ need for developing a workforce with the skills and talent for a healthy functioning society? Short answer: It doesn’t. It won’t. It can’t.

In terms of the Florida Legislature, this becomes a “you scratch our back, we give you a half-a-million-dollar job” set up, and quite frankly, the people of Florida deserve much better than this level of naked corruption mongering. Public funds exist to support the public good, not curry political favors. Period.

According to Gov. Ron DeSantis and his political allies, Florida is an emblem of freedom and individual rights. What SB 520/HB 703 show is that this belief apparently applies to everyone but the alumnae, students, faculty and staff of our higher education system, who would have no knowledge or say in the hiring process of their presidents until it is a done deal.

It’s time to vote NO on this bill and ensure that the oversight of public dollars remains in the Florida Sunshine, and that a degree from a Florida college or university grows in value rather than diminishes.

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Andrew Gothard
Andrew Gothard

Andrew Gothard teaches English at Florida Atlantic University and is president of the United Faculty of Florida, representing faculty at all 12 public universities, 16 colleges and the private Saint Leo University, along with graduate assistants at four public universities.