Faculty members, state officals cry foul following launch of FAU presidential search investigation

by | Jul 14, 2023

  • Florida officials and faculty members at Florida Atlantic University are questioning the motives behind the State University System’s suspension of the education institution’s presidential search, suspecting political interference.
  • The State University System of Florida froze the search due to concerns over alleged transparency breaches, including inappropriate inquiries about candidates’ sexual orientation and gender.
  • Some believe the freezing of the search process aims to benefit Governor Ron DeSantis’ preferred candidate and undermines academic freedom and integrity.

Florida Atlantic University (FAU) faculty members and Florida officials are raising suspicions regarding the motives behind the state’s recently-disclosed full-scale investigation into FAU’s presidential search process.

The State University System of Florida suspended the search for FAU’s next president on Saturday due to concerns over alleged anomalies throughout the process. In a letter composed by University System Chancellor Ray Rodrigues to FAU Board of Trustees Chairman Brad Levine, the state university board pointed to instances of “transparency breaches” during the selection process involving inquiries regarding a candidate’s sexual orientation, gender, and preferred pronouns.

The state university system contends that the allegation could contravene regulations set forth by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

“At least one candidate reported he was requested to complete a questionnaire and answer if his sexual orientation was “queer” and whether he was a “male or transgender male,” reads Rodrigues’ letter. “In a separate and required survey, the same candidate was subsequently asked if his gender was “male, female, or other” and what his “preferred pronouns were.” These inquiries are wholly irrelevant, inappropriate, and potentially illegal.”

Following pushback by Levine, in which he defended the search process and compared it to methodologies employed by Florida State University in its 2021 hiring of Richard McCullough, Rodrigues informed FAU leaders that the state would engage in a deliberative review based on “preliminary admissions.”

“The investigation will be led by Board of Governors Inspector General Julie Leftheris, who will be in contact with FAU. The investigation will be thorough, fair, and a determination will not be reached in haste,” said Rodrigues. “The search process will remain suspended until the conclusion of our investigation. We look forward to your continued cooperation and engagement in this matter.”

Amid the investigative escalations, the United Faculty of Florida’s (UFF) FAU chapter contended that Rodrigues is grasping at “any meager, partisan straw he can find to gin up false cause” to undermine the search process.

“Where was this interest in Sunshine Laws when the hiring of Ben Sasse at the University of Florida was called into question and the university refused to provide access to the exact documents the Chancellor is requesting now? Where was the Chancellor’s letter of inquiry when the Board of Trustees at New College had held conversations off the record about hiring Richard Corcoran at a dramatically inflated salary?,” Said UFF president Andrew Gothard. “Based on his patterns of silence and complicity, it is clear that the Chancellor only jumps when the Governor yanks his chain.”

Gothard also questioned the source of the university system’s tip-off that triggered the disquisitive inquiry, insinuating that the complaint was filed in order to benefit the standing of Rep. Randy Fine, Gov. Ron DeSantis‘ preferred candidate, within the search process.

“By relying upon “anonymous” reporting as reason to insert himself in this search process, the Chancellor shows that he is unable to separate his political affiliations from his solemn duty to serve the needs of Florida’s university system,” said Gothard.

Fine, one of DeSantis’ closest stateside allies, claimed in late March that he was under consideration to lead the university and expressed interest in taking up the role.

“It’s very flattering to have been asked, and something I’m actively considering,” Fine told the Sun-Sentinel. “It certainly is an amazing opportunity.”

The publication further reported that the Office of the Governor approached Fine, encouraging the Republican lawmaker to pursue the position of leadership, referring to him as a “good candidate for the job.”

The representative was ultimately left off of the list of finalists posted last week, to the surprise of many following the process. Days before Rodrigues alleged wrongdoings in the search process,  Vice Admiral Sean Buck, superintendent of the United States Naval Academy; Michael Hartline, dean of the College of Business at Florida State University; and Jose Sartarelli, former chancellor of the University of North Carolina Wilmington were named as the lone remaining considerations.

Joshua Simmons, a commissioner for the City of Coral Springs, which borders FAU’s city of Boca Raton to the south, went a step further, contending that Fine personally lodged the complaint after not being included in the list of finalists.

“One particular candidate, who I believe to be Randy Fine, a Florida state representative, seems to have complained about the FAU Presidential Search because he wasn’t a finalist,” wrote Simmons on Twitter.

Democrat representative Anna Eskamani supplemented Simmons’ suspicions, questioning whether the state university system holds ulterior political motives that play into the hands of the governor.

“DeSantis ally Randy Fine did not make the final selection for FAU President so now DeSantis-appointed Board of Governors who oversee the State University System are freezing the entire search process,” she said. “FAU is being targeted for purely political reasons. It’s gross and an insult to academic freedom and integrity.”

The Executive Office of the Governor and the State University System Board of Governors declined to comment on the matter.

The interjection comes at a time marked by the governor’s efforts to reshape higher education in Florida, highlighted by the restructuring of New College of Florida’s Board of Trustees and the elimination of diversity, equity, and inclusivity policies within the state’s colleges.


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