Florida the Latest State to Close Presidential Searches

A new bill exempts presidential searches at Florida’s public institutions from open records law, keeping candidates’ names confidential until the end. Faculty unions oppose such measures.

March 7, 2022
 
Joe Sohm/Visions of America/Contributor/Getty Images
State capitol building in Tallahassee, Fla.

The Florida Legislature passed a bill Friday that would close presidential searches at state colleges and universities, effectively keeping applicants’ identities hidden from the public until the institution decides on three finalists. Under Florida’s existing open records laws, the names of applicants are available to the public throughout the search process.

The state House of Representatives approved the bill 86 to 26, and the state Senate passed the measure last month. Now it awaits approval from Gov. Ron DeSantis.

Advocates of the bill, including state senators Jeff Brandes and Darryl Rouson, say the legislation would help state institutions attract a more qualified and diverse pool of candidates, the Tallahassee Democrat reported. At least five of the state’s 12 public universities will seek a new president in the next few years, and the University of Florida plans to begin a search for its next president this month.

Henry Stoever, president of the Association of Governing Boards, supports the bill.

“They need to attract the best talent,” Stoever said. “Having a requirement to disclose who is in that candidate pool will significantly reduce the quality of the talent pool that they are considering.”

Sitting presidents and provosts are unlikely to apply to an open search, said Rod McDavis, managing principal at AGB Search, a higher education executive search firm.

“They feel pretty secure in their current positions, and that security could be threatened if their name is made public,” McDavis said. “A president who has had his or her contract recently renewed or extended might be in jeopardy of losing that job if they apply for another position and the board finds out that they’re a candidate for another presidency.”

As a result, more and more states and institutions are opting for closed searches. Wisconsin and Tennessee closed presidential searches at public institutions in 2015 and 2018, respectively. Meanwhile, the average length of presidential tenures is on the decline. In 2017, presidents spent an average of 6.5 years in their jobs, down from 8.5 years in 2006, according to a survey by the American Council on Education, and so institutions are seeking presidents more frequently. These processes often take a year to complete and require intense background checks, screenings and multiple rounds of interviews.

“There is a desire on the part of more colleges and universities to get a higher quality of people in the pool, and they feel they can get a higher quality of candidates if they have a closed search,” McDavis said. “There is a movement in that direction on a national level.”

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Nebraska lawmakers first introduced a bill in 2014 that would have kept applicants’ names confidential except for a single finalist. At the time, all candidates’ names were kept secret except for the four finalists. The initial bill ultimately failed, but similar legislation passed in 2016.

The 2016 bill contained a key difference, said Melissa Lee, chief communications officer for the University of Nebraska system—the institution is required to name a “priority candidate” who is subject to a 30-day public vetting period.

“That vetting period has to involve visits to campus, open public sessions, open sessions with the media and so forth where members of the public and members of the university community can meet the person and submit feedback to the Board of Regents,” Lee said. “After the 30-day public vetting period—if the Board of Regents deems that the priority candidate is suitable to forward based on public input—the board would vote on that person.”

Critics of the Florida bill say an opaque search process violates the public’s right to know who is in the running to lead their higher education institutions and could attract candidates who are political insiders and not necessarily qualified for the job.

Irene Mulvey, president of the American Association of University Professors, opposed the bill in a statement, calling it a “step away from the mission of higher education to serve the common good.”

“The apparent motivation is to avoid transparency, and to deny faculty and other members of the campus community opportunities to meet with the candidates applying to lead their institutions during these challenging times,” Mulvey wrote about the bill. “This is yet another attempt to control the truth, to enable them to make a decision on a new president without any of the requisite and valuable input from the faculty and staff that the new president will lead.”

Faculty unions are frequent critics of closed presidential searches. The presidents of three employee unions at Montgomery College in Maryland recently wrote a letter to their members expressing concerns about the community college’s latest presidential search process. Two of the signatories served on the search committee, which in December selected Jermaine Williams, the former president of Nassau Community College in New York, to serve as Montgomery’s president. After he was selected, the union leaders learned that the Nassau Community College Federation of Teachers had concerns about Williams and had alleged that his policies “damaged the college in areas of student success, academic programming, college community health and safety, and financial integrity.”

“While there is a tendency to support the process of which we were a part, after deliberation we have reached consensus that the process resulting in the selection of Dr. Williams was flawed,” the presidents wrote. “In our view, the presidential search committee did not have enough data to make an informed decision about the presidency. The committee was restricted to resumes and other materials provided directly by the candidates. The decision by the college administration and the Board of Trustees not to have a public forum on the candidates precluded the possibility that additional information might emerge. In the case of Dr. Williams, it ensured that negative information that could have thrown his candidacy into question did not come to light.”

In response to the union presidents’ letter, Michael Knapp, chair of the Montgomery College Board of Trustees, said the board was “fully confident and unwavering” in choosing Williams.

“The board conducted a national presidential search with interviews and a thorough vetting and assessment process for candidates by the search advisory committee (representing the college community), the search firm, and the Board of Trustees,” Knapp said. “As we begin a new era with Dr. Williams as our president, the board is steadfast in its commitment and support to the entire Montgomery College community and Dr. Williams’ ability to provide leadership and success to this community.”

Even when a search process is closed, boards must make sure to involve faculty members and others, Stoever said.

“Leading practice is that the search committee will include members of the board, members of the faculty, and members of the administration, and could also include others, such as alumni,” he said. “It’s a board responsibility, but it’s not a board-only process. Part of the process is to be inclusive of other voices.”

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