The Florida Senate continued its push this week to take university job searches for presidents, provosts, and deans out of the sunshine so that these critical decisions could be made in the backrooms and cocktail bars of state politics. SB 182 would exempt portions of the search process from Florida’s cherished Sunshine and open records laws. More below.
I would like to think that I understand the policy-making process, for I teach and research in this area. I really thought I could never be surprised by the process, for I’m a critical scholar who analyzes the role that money and politics play in decision-making regarding public policy. But I have found in the last few weeks that it’s all actually worse than I thought.
On Wednesday, seven people stood up and opposed the secrecy bill (SB 182) in the Governmental Oversight and Accountability Committee meeting (funny that such a committee would want to hide information from the public so that folks aren’t held accountable), but it was extremely clear to me after listening to the questions legislators asked and the comments that the legislators made that their positions were based on incomplete or inaccurate information. This is very troubling because there’s no way to correct the misconceptions (whether they are intentional or not) if you’ve completed your testimony.
So I plan to do it here.
Senator Hays, the sponsor of the bill, asked a speaker who was not directly involved with the FSU presidential search how many people applied for the FSU president position, so that question wasn’t answered. I should have answered it in my testimony, but I had so much else to say that I didn’t think of it until I sat back down (I really hate it when that happens). If I’m not mistaken, the answer was 33—that is, once the search was “reset” and the Presidential Search Advisory Committee (PSAC) picked a hard deadline, more people applied, many at the deadline as often happens in Sunshine searches. But another speaker who was outlining the problems with the FSU search noted that 8 people applied before the search consultant recommended that only one candidate, who, incidentally, had not applied yet, be vetted. That, my friends, is the number that Senator Hays then used to suggest that his bill was necessary so that more people apply. That number instead of the 30-some people who did apply once the search was opened back up, a list that was whittled down to the 11 people who made the shorter list, and then down to the final 4 candidates who were invited to campus to interview. I hate to say it but I think he should have known the number of candidates who applied since this is his bill that he says is necessary because more and better-qualified candidates will apply (and I gotta say, I feel sorry for all of those great presidents, provosts, and deans who were actually hired in the Sunshine; I’d be pretty offended if I were them).
There was also a lot of confusion about testimony regarding the FSU PSAC meeting in which consultant Bill Funk told committee members that they should only vet one candidate. One Senator tried to school the speaker by saying Boards of Trustees (BOT) are governed under a completely different part of the Sunshine Law than what Hays’ bill was referring to. I am not really sure what he was talking about, and neither does First Amendment Foundation President Barbara Petersen, as BOT meetings and presidential searches are held under the same Sunshine Law standards (i.e., Art I, § 24(b) Fla Const. according to my sources).
Further, the speaker wasn’t talking about a BOT meeting, so she clarified that she was talking about a PSAC meeting. Senator Ring, the chair of the Committee, then stated that the FSU PSAC meeting she discussed would have been an open meeting according to Hays’ bill. This is also incorrect. The bill would indeed exempt any meeting in which candidate names are discussed. It is not until the final decision is made that the names of the finalists would be made public. I wish he would have known that since he wholeheartedly supported the bill.
Senator Ring also suggested that faculty (beyond those on the search committee, I think he meant to say) didn’t need to be involved in the process because the president needs faculty more than the faculty needs the president. I would like to think this is true but it’s not. I had tried to explain the concept of shared governance, but I’m not sure my point was heard. And everyone knows that the president is the most visible part of the university (and he/she makes a helluva lot more money than the faculty, that’s for sure, but not even close to as much as the football coach. Ah, priorities).
He also said that half a dozen people testifying is not a public outcry, so obviously people do not see this bill as a problem. Well, that’s insulting to those of us who made the effort to come to the meeting to speak, and I know for a fact that calls came into Senators’ offices, but alas, I’ve been told that some Senators do not actually have staff log the calls. This is absolutely appalling to me. We are told to call and register our concerns with our legislators—the people who we elect to do our business—but no one is paying attention? This is absurd to me! They are supposed to be doing the people’s work—in the Sunshine! Seems to me that the number of calls and emails supporting or opposing bills should be public record.
It is also important to note that we said that the United Faculty of Florida Senate unanimously passed a resolution opposing the bill. I guess I have to say that we actually represent many thousands of faculty members and graduate assistants in Florida. That, to me, is a public outcry! But, alas, the room wasn’t full of faculty—probably because they were working and don’t all live in Tallahassee!—and the bill passed 4-1 with Senator Bullard as the only opposing vote.
I am an academic. Facts matter. Data matter. Logic matters. Making cogent arguments matter. I expect that others would agree, especially legislators making decisions every day that clearly affect our public institutions and the people of Florida. And rational people can debate the issues and come to an agreement—or not. And that’s okay. But that is not the case here. Not by a long shot. None of this matters. It’s only about relationships, power, and wealth. More than once I’ve heard that the reason a legislator would vote for a problematic bill is because the sponsor asked him or her to do so. Not facts, not data, not logic, not arguments, not even the public speaking out against the idea.
Based on my experiences talking with folks about this bill and hearing what supporters of the bill say, especially legislators, it has finally become crystal clear to me that this insidious bill is not about the public interest. This bill is about governor-appointed BOTs being able to make backroom deals to promote the candidates that the powers that be want without the pesky public, including faculty, students, parents, alumni, and concerned community members, asking questions or making comments or talking to the press. It’s much easier and less messy to manipulate the process if no one is watching.