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A photo illustration of an elephant standing behind a desk.

Numerous Republican lawmakers have been hired into top jobs at Florida institutions recently.

Photo illustration by Justin Morrison/Inside Higher Ed | Leif Blessing and August de Richelieu/Pexels

Roughly 14 months after Florida Atlantic University began a presidential search—and nine months after it ended in failure—the effort to find a new leader is starting anew.

At a meeting Tuesday, FAU’s Board of Trustees laid out plans for rebooting the search, which launched in January 2023 only to be derailed by alleged board missteps. Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody determined that a straw poll used by search committee members to rank candidates anonymously to shrink the applicant pool violated the state Sunshine Law. Critics, however, have raised concerns that politics were at play; they argue that the search was called off largely because the board did not select GOP lawmaker Randy Fine as one of three finalists, despite Republican governor Ron DeSantis allegedly telling Fine he was a lock for the job.

Due to these alleged anomalies, the search has been suspended since July.

Now, after a process that has dragged on for more than a year and prompted the resignation of former FAU Board Chair Brad Levine, a new effort is officially under way to find FAU’s next president. In the meantime, the university is being led by interim President Stacy Volnick, who has served in that capacity since Sept. 2022, when her predecessor retired.

FAU Presidential Search 2.0

When the FAU board rebooted its presidential search on Tuesday, the meeting was largely devoid of fireworks, a marked change for a board that has slipped into explosive behavior at times.

New chair Piero Bussani, who stepped into the role after the State University System of Florida Board of Governors (FLBOG) pressured Levine to resign over the unsuccessful presidential search and Volnick’s contract, initiated the conversation about relaunching the search by nodding to “internal divisions” on the board, which he said have overshadowed university achievements and injected tensions into meetings.

“We’re exhausted and frustrated by our reputation being tarnished by negatives,” Bussani said.

He also made a vague reference to “personal attacks,” an apparent nod to prior clashes between Levine and vice chair Barbara Feingold, who accused the former chair of missteps in the search and alleged “ethics violations” by some of the finalists, all traditional academics. Feingold has been a financial supporter of Fine, according to campaign finance records.

In announcing the new search, Bussani emphasized the need for a fresh start.

“Let’s put the past in the rear view mirror, please,” he said at Tuesday’s meeting, underscoring the need to maintain decorum among members and focus on the big issues.

The search has hung in limbo since July, as FAU awaited guidance from the Florida Board of Governors. Now, following an FLBOG update to presidential search regulations, the university will likely hire a search firm by June and begin the process in earnest.

Bussani said FAU expects to name a new president “by the end of the year or shortly thereafter.”

Presidential Hiring Trends

FAU’s board restarted its presidential search one day after Florida Polytechnic University voted 7 to 6 to tap G. Devon Stephenson as its new leader. The Florida Poly board was split on whether the next president needed a STEM background.

Stephenson, who has been president of Northwest Florida State College for seven years, was one of five finalists for the Florida Poly job. While none of those finalists came from the political world, Republican lawmakers are increasingly stepping into the top jobs at other Florida institutions.

In fall 2022, Ray Rodrigues, a Republican state lawmaker and DeSantis ally, was hired as chancellor of the State University System of Florida. The search yielded only eight applicants, some of whom raised concerns about the hiring process; three told Inside Higher Ed they were never contacted for interviews after they applied and questioned the integrity of the search.

In an interview Tuesday, Rodrigues told Inside Higher Ed that before applying for the job, he had conversations with two members of the Florida Board of Governors and later with DeSantis staffers, but not with the governor himself. He said he was unsure why the applicant pool for the job was so thin, noting that the system has not struggled to fill other top jobs across the state.

Rodrigues described himself as a “hybrid” hire, citing his 16 years at Florida Gulf Coast University—where he held a variety of different positions—as well as his stint in the legislature. Rodrigues also defended other political hires across the state university system.

Former Republican Senator Ben Sasse was also hired in 2022 as president of the University of Florida. Then Richard Corcoran, another former Republican state lawmaker, was selected as president of New College of Florida amid a DeSantis-driven conservative overhaul of the liberal arts college, at a salary that is now double that of his predecessor. Hired on an interim basis in early 2023, Corcoran has since been given the permanent role. (NCF has also filled various administrative posts with GOP political operatives from outside academia.)

In May, after a failed presidential search at South Florida State College, the board hired Fred Hawkins, a former rodeo cowboy turned Republican state lawmaker with no higher education experience and only a bachelor’s degree, making him an anomaly among college presidents. An SFSC trustee told local media that the three finalists in the unsuccessful search were all Democrats, and “the governor doesn’t appoint all Republican trustees and expect us to select a Democrat.”

Earlier this month, the Manatee-Sarasota campus of the State College of Florida hired Republican state representative Tommy Gregory as its next president. Gregory, a lawyer, does not have traditional higher education experience, but in an interview with local press he underscored his time in the military as general counsel for the Air Mobility Warfare Center, which has an educational component.

Elsewhere, DeSantis ally Henry Mack III—a former chancellor of the Florida Department of Education—missed out on the Florida Gulf Coast University presidency by a single vote last April. In October, Mack was selected as acting president of Broward College, only to bow out hours later citing family reasons. A Broward College press release, however, indicated negotiations failed over “an inability to come to terms on his compensation and the duration of his contract.”

Rodrigues declined to comment on hires within the 28-member Florida College System, but argued that the 12 universities under his leadership feature presidents from a variety of backgrounds.

“If you look across the university system, we’ve got a healthy mixture of traditional academics and those who are nontraditional but nonpolitical, and those who are nontraditional but have come out of the political arena into their role. But none of it’s unprecedented,” Rodrigues said.

Specifically, he noted that former Florida State University presidents Talbot (Sandy) D’Alemberte (1994–2003), Thomas Kent (T.K.) Wetherell (2003–2010), and John Thrasher (2014–2021), all came from the political world. And former Lieutenant Governor Frank Brogan held the state chancellor job from 2003 to 2010. Rodrigues pointed to various other politicos as well.

While that may be par for the course in the Sunshine State, it’s not terribly common elsewhere; according to the American Council on Education’s latest presidential survey, which was completed by more than 1,000 leaders, only 4.7 percent of respondents came from the “public sector/government.”

The DeSantis Administration, Florida Department of Education Commissioner Manny Diaz, Jr., and Florida College System Chancellor Kathryn Hebda did not respond to requests for comment. But Rodrigues largely batted away concerns about the increasing number of Republicans joining the presidential ranks of Florida’s institutions, arguing that the state has invested significant resources into its education system and enrollment remains strong while institutions across the nation struggle.

As the FAU search begins again, observers will be watching closely.

(This story has been updated to clarify what happened at the Board of Trustees meeting Tuesday.)

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