Fla. System Chancellor Search Mired in Politics

Only eight applicants applied to lead the State University System of Florida, a job that went to Ray Rodrigues, a Florida state senator and ally of Republican governor Ron DeSantis.

September 23, 2022
Ray Rodrigues, a light-skinned man with receding dark hair wearing a business suit.
Ray Rodrigues, who spent a decade in state politics, was tapped as the next chancellor for the State University System Florida.
(Florida House of Representatives)

By all measures, the chancellor position at the State University System of Florida seems like a plum job. It oversees 12 institutions that serve more than 430,000 students, manages a multibillion-dollar budget and comes with a salary of over $400,000.

Yet the latest search for a new chancellor of the second-largest public university system in the U.S. yielded only eight applicants.

A ninth application, which lacked substantial information and listed President Joe Biden as a reference, was marked “incomplete.”

None of the applicants had experience as a college president, a qualification that experts say is often desirable in a system head. Some were international applicants who had spent most or all of their careers working outside the U.S. Though the university system's Board of Governors insists it conducted a thorough search, the depth of the applicant pool is underwhelming to experts who suggest that the state’s fractious political climate may have stifled interest in the job.

Ultimately, the board hired Ray Rodrigues—a former legislator and confederate of Republican governor Ron DeSantis—from the shallow pool. But other candidates who spoke to Inside Higher Ed suggest the fix was in from the start, with Rodrigues elevated to the top of the résumé pile solely on the power of his political credentials. They say he was hired as an ally of the governor by a state board stocked with DeSantis appointees.

The Search Process

The Florida Board of Governors unanimously voted to hire Rodrigues on Sept. 14. Rodrigues will replace the current chancellor, Marshall Criser, who is retiring. The hire concluded a search in which only two candidates were interviewed, while some of the other applicants were never contacted.

The position was open to applications for a period of 30 days, closing on Aug. 12.

“The Board’s Chancellor Search Committee conducted a thorough search to fill the chancellor position,” Renee Fargason, spokesperson for the Board of Governors, wrote in an email. “The application process was open for 30 days. The position was advertised in the online job platforms of the Chronicle of Higher Education, InsideHigherEd and HigherEdJobs. These 3 online platforms are visited by approximately 7 million people each month.”

Fargason did not answer a list of questions Inside Higher Ed sent regarding the search, and she said that Rodrigues was not available for an interview before he formally starts—a date Fargason also said she was unable to provide. Likewise, final salary details have not yet been announced.

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Three applicants who spoke to Inside Higher Ed said they were never contacted during the search process, even to confirm receipt of their submitted materials. Other candidates did not respond to requests for comment.

One applicant—who applied because he thought he could make a difference in the role—sharply criticized the hiring process, suggesting that Rodrigues was handpicked from the beginning.

“They determined that the qualifications were basically to be a politician who was an ally of the executive leadership of the state,” said the applicant, who requested anonymity to discuss the search freely. “And as far as I know, this would be the only chancellor in the country without a doctoral degree. So you’re losing any outside perspective, any sense of innovation or any real understanding of academia, of what it takes to teach, what it takes to do research, what it takes to deal with disadvantaged students. And 20 or 30 years of experience, which will be expected in a normal chancellor, is gone; it’s nonexistent and it’s to the detriment of the state of Florida.”

That applicant and others called the handling of the search process “unprofessional” and questioned Rodrigues’s qualifications. On his résumé, Rodrigues lists 11 years of corporate experience and 16 years in various roles at Florida Gulf Coast University, where he is the director of interagency partnerships. His highest academic credential is a master’s degree from FGCU.

In his application, Rodrigues also touted his legislative experience, which spanned 10 years in the Florida House and Senate. Rodrigues pointed to his sponsorship of controversial 2021 legislation that DeSantis championed, including SB 264, which established a viewpoint-diversity survey for students and employees that faced strong opposition from academics and then received few responses when distributed.

Critics of the legislation have likened the survey to a political litmus test for university employees.

Rodrigues also noted his sponsorship this year of SB 7044, which requires public institutions to change accrediting agencies at the end of each accreditation cycle. Critics of the bill see it as political retaliation against the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges, the regional accrediting agency for Florida institutions. SACSCOC sent letters to individual colleges in 2021 seeking information on a potential conflict of interest in a recent presidential search at Florida State University, as well as on the University of Florida’s gag order on professors who sought to participate in a lawsuit opposing state voting restrictions.

A U.S. Department of Education official cautioned DeSantis against approving the bill before it was signed into law.

SB 7044 also allows the Board of Governors to design its own tenure-review process for professors—despite existing campus policies—a measure that critics, including the American Association of University Professors, have decried as an attack on academic freedom.

Search-Process Norms

Outside observers note that eight applicants for a university system the size of Florida’s is an unusually low number. They also said that it is common practice to inform applicants their materials have been received.

Jason Lane, dean of the College of Education, Health, and Society at Miami University in Ohio and a senior fellow at the National Association of System Heads, said he hasn’t heard of other states having trouble attracting quality candidates for top leadership searches. He believes Florida's shallow applicant pool reflects not a lack of available talent but rather worries about the state's political climate.

“There are often state contextual issues that will dictate what folks are interested in doing, and I think given the contentiousness of politics in Florida at the moment, the individual’s time is likely going to be spent significantly in the political realm. I think that may have led some folks to self-select out of the opportunity at this moment, whereas they may have otherwise been interested in that role,” Lane said.

Others point to additional factors contributing to the sparse applicant pool.

Jay Lemons, president of the executive search firm Academic Search, said by email that system heads are less visible positions in the higher ed world and that these searches generally draw fewer applicants than presidential posts.

He also noted the job of a system head differs significantly from that of a college president.

“The jobs of system heads are very different than leading a campus. System heads are typically the critical link to state governments,” Lemons said. “They also bear responsibility and oversight of multiple campuses that serve an entire state rather than being focused on a single campus.”

He adds that career pathways to such positions are highly varied, with some system heads rising up through the campus ranks and others coming with backgrounds in areas such as government. Political experience, he said, can help system heads navigate their responsibilities.

“Given the central role of public funding for systems, having a system head with knowledge of government and relationships can be highly beneficial,” Lemons said. “The challenge can come if those persons don’t know, understand or respect higher education and how leadership and change management work in the academy.”

Lane agreed that a political background can benefit a system head.

“I think the benefits are that they understand the political side of the state, they have relationships that are existing, that hopefully they can use to the benefit of the system and the constituent campuses,” Lane said. “I think challenges are—and we see this even at the campus level—a lack of understanding of the higher education sector, how it operates, the on-the-ground issues that are dealt with in terms of the delivery of education and the life and the work of faculty. Folks who come from outside of higher ed don’t understand the machinations of higher education work. In the same way, somebody in higher ed [who] jumped into business probably wouldn’t understand how the machinations work—they have their own culture, so there’s often some difficulty there.”

Reactions to the Hire

When Rodrigues was formally hired as the next chancellor, local media reported that the move had been “widely expected,” noting his deep political connections. Rodrigues had announced in June—the same month that Criser declared his intention to retire—that he would not seek re-election for his State Senate seat. He then applied for the chancellor role on July 13.

News of Rodrigues’s hiring prompted both congratulations and condemnations. Political colleagues noted that Rodrigues is a first-generation college graduate and praised his work ethic. The Board of Governors called Rodrigues “an experienced and dedicated leader.”

But those who have opposed some of the legislation Rodrigues has sponsored are wary that he will advance a DeSantis agenda that they believe is detrimental to public higher education in the state.

Andrew Gothard, president of the United Faculty of Florida, said there is a perception that Rodrigues was hired for the chancellor role based solely on his past political experience.

“Our position at UFF is the only people who should be in [executive] positions are people with a great deal of experience in higher education, preferably as faculty members, but also as administrators, and that we should not be putting political appointees in that role. And so we do have some concerns about Senator Rodriguez being appointed because of his political background. And we feel like that is the No. 1 reason he has been appointed,” Gothard said. “Now, he does have some administrative experience due to his employment with Florida Gulf Coast University. But we don’t believe that that is the main reason for his appointment. We believe the main reason for his appointment has to do with the legislation that he has sponsored in relation to higher education over the past few years. And unfortunately, we are very much at odds with Senator Rodriguez about what makes good policy for higher education.”

Gothard specifically noted opposition to SB 7044 this year and SB 264 in 2021. Though his sponsorship of the legislation concerns faculty members, Gothard said the union wants to give Rodrigues a chance to establish common ground and prove himself as a leader.

“I think everybody deserves a chance to prove themselves, especially in a new leadership role. So we certainly have a number of hopes about how Chancellor Rodrigues will behave, but those hopes do not in any way undermine our commitment to fully and vehemently oppose all policies and procedures that would harm the higher education system,” he said. “We want to give him a chance to do well, but we’re watching and we are ready to go after him and after the Board of Governors if they continue to make decisions that will harm our higher education system.”

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