Following controversial presidential searches at some public universities, a Florida House panel Tuesday easily approved a bill that would offer confidentiality to candidates during the early stages of searches for new college leaders.
With only one dissenting vote, the House Higher Education and Workforce Subcommittee approved the measure (HB 223) by Rep. Neil Combee, a Polk City Republican who argued that the move would increase the pool of applicants to become president, provost or dean at public colleges or universities.
“Common sense tells you that when someone can make application without the whole world knowing about it, the likelihood of having a larger pool will occur,” Combee said.
He and other backers of the proposal argued that Florida’s Sunshine Law, which requires information about candidates for top university posts to be made public, keeps the best candidates from applying.
Rep. Ray Rodrigues, R-Estero, noted that the new presidents of Florida Atlantic University and Florida A&M University were vice presidents of their former institutions when they applied, while the new president of the University of Florida was a provost at another institution.
“We do a great job in this state of attracting applicants who are looking for a promotion, because no one can hold it against an individual to seek to better their career,” Rodrigues said. “But what we don’t do as a state is a great job of attracting other presidents, because the risk is too great for them to even apply for this position, when they have the problems that could be created back home — particularly if they never make it out of the first phase and become a finalist.”
Opponents — including the First Amendment Foundation, the United Faculty of Florida and the Florida AFL-CIO — argued that the bill would violate the rights of people with stakes in the future of universities. The most-controversial recent presidential search involved a months-long process that led to Florida State University hiring former Sen. John Thrasher as its leader.
“The positions that you’re talking about right now are some of the highest-paid, most powerful public servants in the state of Florida,” said Florida AFL-CIO spokesman Rich Templin. “They’re going to be impacting the lives of thousands of staff, faculty, parents, students — and you’re now saying that you need to take that out of the sunshine and allow these deals to be made behind closed doors.”
“I think what we need to be concerned about is protecting the public and public tax dollars, not whether any one person has difficulty being upfront with their home university as to whether they’re going to apply or not,” said Rep. Michelle Rehwinkel Vasilinda, a Tallahassee Democrat and the lone vote against the proposal.
The committee also amended the bill so that information about finalists for positions would be shielded from public view until 30 days before the meeting at which action is taken on selecting a candidate. Combee said that would align the measure with the Senate version of the bill, SB 182 by Sen. Alan Hays, R-Umatilla, which has already cleared two committees.
“There will be sunshine,” Rodrigues said. “The question is, where will the sunshine be? In this bill, we put the sunshine in the process where it is most needed, where you’re deciding who the finalists are.”
The bill passed 9-1 and now goes to the House Government Operations Subcommittee.