Miami Herald by Pamela C. Marsh, President of the First Amendment Foundation
February 14, 2020
Your state legislators are considering a bill that should be called the University President Secret Selection Act. If this law passes, the process of applying, interviewing and vetting will occur behind closed doors, with no input from the public, until the field is reduced to three candidates.
The public will never know who applied. The public will not be able to observe interviews or review materials submitted by candidates or their references. There could be 120 candidates with impressive qualifications and diverse experience, but we will never know about 117 of them. We will be provided information only about the final three — and we will learn about the three finalists merely 21 days before the final decision is made.
There is no reason to believe that a secret search for a university president will produce better candidates. In fact, there is evidence that secrecy results in promoting well-connected insiders, excluding qualified women, people of color and other groups that are underrepresented in leadership positions.
Secrecy makes it easier to install a hand-picked favorite. Stack the deck of three finalists with two less-qualified candidates and, of course, the favorite looks like a shining star. However, we will never know how the entire pool of candidates compared, because no information regarding how the new president stacked up against all the competition will ever be revealed.
The bill’s supporters say that better candidates will apply if they don’t have to reveal their identity. But doesn’t that cut two ways? Perhaps Candidate A assumes a better qualified candidate — Candidate B — has applied. As a result, Candidate A does not apply, believing that her chances aren’t as good as Candidate B’s. Candidate A later finds out Candidate B did not apply — so two qualified potential candidates don’t apply because all the applicants’ names are kept secret. Great candidates may not apply because they can’t know who their competition might be.
The bill also suggests that the candidates would be better if identities were concealed and decisions made in the dark. Doesn’t that imply that our current university presidents aren’t the best they could be? But that couldn’t be further from the truth.
Both the president of the University of Florida, Kent Fuchs, and Florida State University President John Thrasher were selected after lively (if not acrimonious) public discussion and participation. And today, both are largely beloved on and off campus — throughout the state and beyond. They have brought communities together, encouraged diversity of speech and listened to students, faculty, alumni, as well as critics.
Let’s not stop there. Consider a few other revered Florida university presidents: Sandy d’Alemberte, Eric Barron, Bernie Machen, and Bernie Sliger all were selected in the sunshine and all served with distinction.
The state Supreme Court ruled in 1983 that Florida’s Sunshine Law was enacted “to protect the public from ‘closed door’ politics” and applied that law to a university’s closed “search and screen” practice. In Wood v. Marston, the court concluded that selecting a dean in secret violated Florida’s Sunshine Law and explained that “to allow a review procedure to insulate the decision itself from public scrutiny invites circumvention of the Sunshine Law.” The court also wisely noted that decisions made in the dark could “mask abuses of the rights of others.”
That ruling by the Florida Supreme Court in favor of open government on university campuses still stands. Our universities deserve more transparency and honest dealing — not less. The University President Selection Secrecy Act makes it too easy to discriminate, exclude and stack the decks for a favored insider.
Florida is famous for its “Sunshine.” Our Legislature should not vote for darkness.
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