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UF’s presidential search was not done as Florida law intended, lawmaker says

University of Florida student Bryn Taylor, left, leads a chant during a protest inside the President’s Ballroom at the Emerson Alumni Hall on the Gainesville campus Monday, Oct. 10, 2022. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

The University of Florida’s search for a new president violates the intent of a new state law that governs the process, according to state Sen. Jeff Brandes, who co-sponsored the measure in the Legislature this year.

The law keeps the early part of presidential searches secret as a way to attract high-caliber applicants who don’t want to jeopardize their current jobs. But it also requires universities to lift that confidentiality when “a final group of applicants” emerges.

Instead, UF officials announced one finalist, U.S. Sen. Ben Sasse, and have refused to release the names of a dozen people they interviewed after reaching out to hundreds of possible candidates.

“My intent in proposing the public records exemption was that they would always propose multiple candidates,” Brandes, a St. Petersburg Republican, said in an interview. “The goal was to get to finalists, not announce who the person was as the only finalist.”

He added: “I think what they’ve done is make it harder for the Legislature in the future to support reauthorizing (the law). I think it was shortsighted so they can get their one candidate in.”

The law is automatically repealed in 2027 unless the Legislature reapproves it.

Brandes said the spirit of the law was to ensure that Florida had access to the most qualified candidates across the country. In past presidential searches, he said, those candidates were not applying because of Florida’s open record laws and fear of their current employers finding out.

He said UF’s decision to name one finalist makes it easy for the Legislature in the future to change the current law, which passed this year with bipartisan support after not getting enough traction in previous sessions.

“All they had to do was propose multiple individuals of the highest caliber — and, to me, that was the right way to do it,” Brandes said. “But we are where we are, and I don’t regret it.”

He called Sasse “a fantastic candidate” who would have emerged anyway if the law had been followed as intended.

“Hopefully, this will be seen as an outlier and all of the other universities will ensure there are multiple candidates that are laid out as finalists,” said Brandes, who co-sponsored the law, SB 520, with then-Sen. Ray Rodrigues.

Rodrigues was selected last month as chancellor of the state university system after a national search, emerging as a finalist with the chief business officer of Emory University’s school of theology.

Also last month, Florida International University named a single finalist, Kenneth A. Jessell, in its search for a new president before giving him the job. But Brandes said that was a different situation because Jessell had been the university’s interim president.

After reaching out to more than 700 leaders nationwide, the University of Florida’s search committee said it zeroed in on “a dozen highly qualified diverse candidates,” including nine who were sitting presidents at major research universities.

University spokesperson Steve Orlando said Wednesday the search committee was guided by state law and the wishes of the “prospects” they interviewed.

All of them “requested complete confidentiality unless they were named as the sole finalist,” Orlando said in an email. “These were leaders in exceptionally important positions across the academy, business and the public sector. While the desire for making the names of these individuals public is understandable, it was crucial that we follow their wishes so that they can continue leading their important work and we could attract the best candidates.”

Brandes is not alone in his criticism of UF’s selection process, which university officials described as “exhaustive” and “robust.” During Sasse’s visit to the Gainesville campus on Monday, protesters and several faculty members decried the strategy of putting forth a single finalist, saying it lacked transparency and violated the spirit of the law.

Students assemble to protest outside of Emerson Alumni Hall at the University of Florida as U.S. Sen Ben Sasse, a finalist for the president’s job, made a campus visit on Monday, Oct. 10, 2022. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

They were joined by Andrew Gothard, president of the statewide faculty union, who said the university created a situation that shrouds Sasse’s candidacy in distrust.

“Let’s be clear, the UF president is going to be paid for with public tax dollars, so there should be public oversight in this process,” Gothard said. “We are deeply concerned about the lack of transparency and we would like to know who was passed over and who did not get the nod to be in the group of final candidates along with Sen. Sasse. We think that would be telling if he was truly chosen for his academic merits or if he was just chosen for his political leanings and connections.”

Gothard said opponents of the new presidential search law have been fighting it in the Legislature for eight years and predicted the outcome seen at UF.

“We warned them that this is what would happen — this is what a lack of transparency would produce,” he said. “Unfortunately, the fallout of this is going to fall upon the citizens of Florida.”

Divya Kumar covers higher education for the Tampa Bay Times, in partnership with Open Campus.

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