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News Clips 04/19/2013
EDITORIAL: College-President Searches: Twisted Politics Magnified
Source: Lakeland Ledger, 04/19/13
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The idea that the University of Florida's last presidential search was conducted in a transparent way is fiction. The idea that transparency scuttled the search is a farce.
Yet those reasons are being used as justification for a bill that would reduce transparency in the selection of state university presidents. As state lawmakers consider the measure, they should keep the real history of the university's most recent search in mind.
That search process was derailed because of the involvement of Gov. Rick Scott, who supported major higher education cuts before this year.
From the start of a nearly six-month search process that ended with Scott's intervention, it was clear that university officials would try to work around the state's Sunshine Law that requires public meetings and records. Former university trustee Al Warrington said it himself at the meeting last July when the search committee was formed.
"There's no way you can select a president in the sunshine," Warrington said during a portion of a conference heard by a Tampa Bay Times reporter. "We need people with [UF President Bernie Machen] under the radar screen doing the search."
The search committee did hold public meetings on issues such as job criteria. But the names of nominees and applicants for the job that were released during the search lacked any major research-university leaders and included joke names such as football coach Steve Spurrier.
That's because serious contenders were advised to wait until the last second to apply to keep their names from being revealed through public-record requests.
University of Florida officials had planned to release those names on the morning that finalists would be selected to visit campus, the day before those visits were supposed to take place and just two days before the next president would have been chosen.
The clearest illustration of a lack of transparency was the way that the search ended.
Behind the scenes over the Christmas holiday, Scott met with North Carolina State University Chancellor Randy Woodson, an apparent contender for the university presidency. For reasons that still haven't been fully disclosed, the governor then asked Machen to stay on the job.
Now state Rep. John Tobia, R-Melbourne Beach, is using the University of Florida search as justification for a bill to reduce transparency in all state university and college searches for president or provost.
The measure, HB 637, which has received UF Faculty Senate support and has been approved by all three House committees to which it was referred, provides public-record and meeting exemptions for presidential searches.
Although the premise that too much transparency doomed the University of Florida search is flawed, the measure would also require names of a final group of applicants to be released no later than 21 days before final action is taken — something that would improve the current last-minute process.
A Feb. 19 letter from the First Amendment Foundation, a Tallahassee organization that promotes open government, to Tobia raises strong points in asking him to withdraw the bill.
"According to the constitutionally required statement of public necessity, the exemption is needed because most applicants are employed at the time of their application and they may fear losing their current position; as a result, the pool of qualified applicants may be diminished. This presumes that Florida State University could have somehow done better than President Eric J. Barron or Tallahassee Community College could have hired a more qualified candidate than Dr. Jim Murdaugh, both of whom have been hired in the past few years as a result of a process fully in the sunshine. We can cite numerous other examples, but the point is clear: The justification for this exemption is speculative at best and is not supported by the facts," wrote Barbara A. Petersen, foundation president.
The bill has no companion measure in the state Senate, so approval is uncertain. However, if lawmakers get serious about passing such a measure, they should make themselves aware of the truth about the failure of the University of Florida search.
Basing a law for needless limitations on open government on a false premise — a lie — would be a legislative travesty that would limit public participation in and comment on the choices for leaders of state universities and colleges in Florida.