College and university leaders are powerful public servants. Within their control are millions of dollars and the futures of thousands of students. Allowing men and women of this magnitude to proceed secretly at any administrative level is wrong and should never be tolerated.
Proposed bills in the Florida House and Senate this year would keep the names of candidates for president, provost or dean at Florida’s 40 public universities private during the early stages of the searches. Currently, such a practice is banned by Florida’s sunshine laws and must be public. It should remain that way.
The theory behind the bills — and they have failed to develop much momentum in the past – is without much validation. The bills’ sponsors and other supporters, including Ray Rodrigues, R-Estero, say Florida’s broad public records laws keep more qualified candidates from applying for fear of being exposed early in the process, and putting at risk their current positions. The bills would violate the public’s right to now — the same public that pays taxes to these universities to fund budgets, hire qualified professors and develop a top-of-the-line academic curriculum. We should not have to pay money and then be shut out of the process for hiring these leaders.
One of bills’ sponsors, Rep. Neil Combee, R-Polk City, presents a weak argument. “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. The argument is weak because there is not substantive proof that qualified candidates for president or other top positions are running from the state because of our sunshine laws. Those laws work because they hold government, education and those who must abide by them accountable.
The bills also insinuate that people in those positions are not the best qualified, that we are somehow settling. A presidential search is a long process, involving extensive background checks, an exhaustive chain of interviews — much of it available to the public for observation. To seal any of that from the public — until the finalists are selected, as the bills propose — closes transparency and puts our tax dollars at risk through secrecy.
Similar bills and studies about the state’s inability to attract top candidates have circulated through the Legislature in the past. The bills have not gained traction. In 2001, a state task force recommended names be kept private, making similar claims as today that top names were not applying for fear of alienating people at their current campus. The Education Governance Reorganization Task Force based some of its evidence on a 1998 University of North Florida search that was initially stopped after the list of candidates was deemed unsuitable. State Chancellor Adam Herbert said it was because public records laws limited the leader pool.
Barbara Petersen, executive director of the First Amendment Foundation, was understandably against it then, as she is now. She said then, in newspaper reports, “The public does care. The public cares quite a bit. I get 100 phone calls a month from our hot line, people asking questions. Forty-five percent of those calls are from the public. Nobody can tell me … that the public doesn’t care.”
In 2000, the Legislature tried but could not pass a bill to make presidential searches private not long after candidates in University of Florida’s search , pulled out of contention. Similar bills in 2013 also failed.
Candidates who are presidents at other institutions, should know what they risk or don’t risk by applying for other top positions. If the boards at those schools wish to keep those leaders, then they should aggressively negotiate to keep them.
Rodrigues said to the News Service of Florida: “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. 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 ….”
The risk is far greater by keeping these potential new leaders – the proprietors of the education of our children – from us – at any stage. It is incumbent on the boards of trustees at each of these schools to commit to a search, thoroughly evaluate the candidates, allow the public to listen to the interview of finalists, and then make an informed decision. Secrets are not necessary.