The Phoenix Flyer

FL lawmakers move toward secrecy when it comes to searches for university presidents

By: - January 12, 2022 1:26 pm
University of Florida

University of Florida campus. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

On the first day of the 2022 legislative session, the GOP-controlled Senate Education Committee voted to allow applicants for state university and Florida community college presidents to remain confidential, generally until finalists are determined.

More steps would be needed to get the legislation approved, but Florida’s First Amendment Foundation has already put out a news alert on the issue — which has come up before.

Back in 2020, the First Amendment Foundation wrote that: “There is no reason to believe that secret searches for a university president will produce better-credentialed candidates. Rather, there is evidence that secrecy results in promoting well-connected insiders, leaving out women, people of color and other well-qualified applicants.”

In the 2022 session, State Sen. Jeff Brandes, who represents part of Pinellas County, is sponsoring the legislation, SB 520. In the House, State Rep. Sam Garrison, representing part of Clay County, in Northeast Florida, is the sponsor of the bill, HB 703.

The legislation will require two-thirds vote of both chambers to become law, because it would create a public records exemption.

Proponents have said that confidentiality is needed in order to attract the best candidates.

In fact, the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), in a “presidential search committee checklist,” wrote that:

“The presidential selection process is a classic conflict between the right of individual privacy and the public’s right to know. It is important for the campus community to know the procedures that the committee will use in the search process, and these should be made public early in the search.

“It is the responsibility of the search committee to keep constituent groups informed of the progress of the search. However, in order to attract the best candidates, the search process may involve some measure of confidentiality, especially during the early phases.

“The disclosure of candidates prior to the development of a short list of nominees to recommend to the board can result in the loss of the best candidates. However, to ensure a successful search, the nominees who are recommended to the board should visit the campus and be interviewed by the faculty and possibly other constituent groups. The approach to implementing confidentiality and the process and guidelines for campus visits are matters to be resolved early on in the search process.”

On Tuesday, the Senate Education Committee vote was 6 to 3, with three Democrats voting against the legislation, while Republican lawmakers approved.

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Diane Rado
Diane Rado

Diane Rado has covered state and local government and public schools in six states over some 30 years, focusing on policy and investigative stories as well as legislative and political reporting. She spent most of her career at the St. Petersburg (Tampa Bay) Times and the Chicago Tribune. She has a master’s degree in journalism from Northwestern University and did a fellowship in education reform at the University of Michigan in 1999-2000. She is married to a journalist and has three adult children.