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Governor Ron DeSantis has driven legislation that critics say has harmed Florida higher education.

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Hurricane Ian ripped through Florida this fall, prompting Florida Gulf Coast University to postpone its presidential selection process when the storm delayed the finalists’ visits to campus. Weeks later, the search imploded in failure when two of the three finalists suddenly withdrew their candidacies.

What really blew the search off course, critics say, wasn’t a hurricane but rather Florida’s politics.

Some 150 miles away, the University of South Florida underwent its own failed search for a provost and has since rebooted the effort, announcing that none of the first-round finalists were still under consideration.

These two failures come on the heels of challenges hiring a president at Florida International University, as well as a search for the chancellor position at the State University System of Florida that yielded only eight applicants—and ultimately went to former Republican state senator Ray Rodrigues.

Critics blame the failures on the politics of Florida’s Republican governor, Ron DeSantis, who has focused on reining in colleges that he believes are bastions of liberalism. Those who have overseen the failed searches offer contradictory claims or are simply not saying anything at all.

Higher education legislation pushed or supported by the DeSantis administration has drawn significant criticism, and lawsuits, from faculty members across the state. Florida Republicans have challenged tenure, slapped restraints on academic freedom—for which the DeSantis administration is being sued—and passed legislation to shield the identities of applications for college presidencies, revealing only three finalists at the end of the process. (The University of Florida, however, revealed only one finalist recently.)

Draft legislation has also shown that DeSantis has ambitions to strip institutions of autonomy and give state officials more control over higher education, including over hiring and curriculum.

Now critics say the DeSantis administration’s efforts are actively harming higher education recruitment in Florida as public universities struggle to fill top administrative posts and hire faculty.

Two Failed Searches

Three candidates were named presidential finalists at Florida Gulf Coast University out of an applicant pool of 125, according to the university website. All three finalists were interviewed and visited the campus between Oct. 28 and Nov. 1, after Hurricane Ian pushed back planned visits in September. FGCU’s Board of Trustees was set to pick a new president on Nov. 2 but then paused the selection process for two weeks. Trustees have said publicly that they pushed it back to accommodate the Board of Governors, which would have been asked to approve FGCU’s selection at its Nov. 9 meeting.

“Everything was going well and on track until the middle of the Board of Trustees meeting on Nov. 2, during which we were to select the next president. Instead of moving forward with our planned and published agenda to discuss the three finalists and select one for the job, we were told by our Board Chair that the Chair of the Board of Governors thought it was best to postpone a decision for two weeks because it was not customary to have this kind of decision being made so close to a Board of Governors meeting,” FGCU Faculty Senate president Anna Carlin said by email.

With the process stalled, two of the three candidates bowed out.

FGCU trustees have since made contradictory statements about the search. Chair Blake Gable told Inside Higher Ed in a statement that “my discussions with the chair of the Board of Governors had to do with the timing of our search process, which was impacted by Hurricane Ian.”

But board statements and past precedent for the Board of Governors cast doubt on that claim. Instead, it appears as if the Board of Governors was unhappy with the candidate pool.

“We had a member of the Board of Governors who was quite outspoken about the quality of the candidates,” FGCU trustee Edward Morton said in a board meeting.

Furthermore, the Board of Governors has recently shown a willingness to quickly approve presidential hires, undermining claims that it objected to the compressed timeline for approval. For example, the University of Florida Board of Trustees unanimously selected Ben Sasse, a Republican U.S. senator from Nebraska, as its next president on Nov. 1, which the Board of Governors approved at its next meeting on Nov. 9. The timeline for approval for FGCU’s next president was almost exactly the same as UF’s.

Asked to reconcile conflicting statements from the board, Gable did not provide an answer. The Florida Board of Governors did not respond to a request for comment.

But one finalist, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said that FGCU’s board had acted professionally and they believed that political interference from above ultimately derailed the search.

“It’s frustrating to be treated in a way that seems to be unprofessional and unbecoming of higher education. I think it’s a stain on higher education in the state of Florida. But I find no fault with the [FGCU] Board of Trustees or the search committee. I think they both operated in a highly professional manner. They were working to the best of their ability on behalf of Florida Gulf Coast University. I have nothing but the highest regard for those two groups,” the finalist said.

The finalist said there was a “zero percent chance” they would apply again in the new search, which FGCU’s Board of Trustees will lay out at its December meeting.

The failed provost search at the University of South Florida also remains shrouded in secrecy.

In October, USF announced four finalists. But that search appeared to hit a dead end last month when USF president Rhea Law announced that none of the finalists were still under consideration. One of the finalists, USF’s interim provost, Eric Eisenberg, was asked to withdraw in order to step into a new position of senior vice president of university-community partnerships; the university won’t say why the other three are out of the running.

That search will now continue through the spring.

Brian Connolly, vice president of the USF Faculty Senate, said that employees have received only limited communication about the provost search. He suggested that faculty members are miffed about the search failure, which yielded candidates who seemed to fit the desired profile. (This paragraph has been updated to correct Connolly's role; he's vice president, not president, of the USF Faculty Senate.)

“That none of them were deemed qualified was a surprise,” Connolly said by email. “I will say that I was not all that impressed with most of the finalists, but I often think there is a real chasm between what faculty want to see in a provost and what other administrators and trustees want out of a provost.”

Sent a detailed list of questions, USF responded only by referencing a vague prior statement.

The Politics of Failed Searches

Andrew Gothard, president of the United Faculty of Florida, believes that the state legislation that diminished the transparency around presidential searches had obvious political aims.

Gothard said that he opposed legislation to limit information on presidential searches because he suspected that the end goal “was to shoehorn political appointees into these roles” over more qualified academics. He pointed to the recent selection of Sasse as Florida’s president as an example of this, questioning whether he was really the most qualified candidate in an applicant pool that included current presidents. Gothard suggested that the governor-appointed boards at Florida’s colleges and universities are emphasizing politicians over academics among applicants, and, as a result, more failed searches will occur.

“We believe that when boards of trustees don’t get the political appointees they want in the pool, that these will become failed searches, until they get people who will toe the line politically, as opposed to prioritizing the best interests of the institution that they’re applying to,” Gothard said.

He added that Florida universities are also seeing recruiting challenges for faculty members.

Judith Wilde, a research professor at the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University who has studied presidential searches, suggested that politicians have taken an increased interest in higher education jobs, particularly in Florida and Texas. The logic, she said, is that politicians can wield their connections to direct more dollars from state coffers to the college they lead. However, such presidents are often beholden to active politicians and may be less effective than nonpolitical presidents in their advocacy, she said.

Outside observers note that given the legislation and subsequent litigation related to Florida higher education, potential presidents are stepping into a world of uncertainty. Concerns about overly politicized positions and diminished institutional autonomy then stifle applicant pools.

Challenges unique to Florida—such as the new requirement that institutions change accreditors at the end of each accreditation cycle—add another layer of complexity for potential college presidents.

“There has to be some consideration on the side of the job candidate to recognize there are new policies here that are not necessarily widespread; they may or may not become widespread. That creates uncertainty,” said Amanda Rutherford, a public administration professor at Indiana University who studies higher education policy, including boards and presidencies.

What’s happening in Florida has likely stifled applicant pools and led to failed searches, demonstrating that what happens in the Legislature has far-reaching effects, she suggested.

“I think the failed searches show an illustrative case that politics matter,” Rutherford said.

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