FAU Board of Trustees Chair defends presidential search methodology that led to state investigation

by | Aug 15, 2023

  • Brad Levine, Chairman of the FAU Board of Trustees, defended the university’s presidential search methodology on Tuesday, which culminated in a state investigation and suspension of the process.
  • The search process involved a preference survey among committee members to select interviewees from around 60 applicants. This drew attention from state officials due to concerns about transparency and compliance with state statutes.
  • University System Chancellor Ray Rodrigues raised issues about the survey’s ranking system, which was submitted confidentially to a search firm, and pointed out potentially inappropriate inquiries about candidates’ sexual orientation, gender, and pronouns.
  • Levine cited a legal opinion stating that the preference survey was lawful, clarifying that it was merely a survey and not a vote. He noted that the controversial questions were sent by a consulting firm, not by FAU, and stated that neither the committee nor the university was aware of these questions.

Florida Atlantic University (FAU) Board of Trustees Chairman Brad Levine on Tuesday defended the university’s presidential search methodology that led to a state investigation and subsequent pausing of the process.

During his opening remarks to fellow board members, Levine outlined the tools used to aid in the university’s search for its new leader, including a straw poll distributed among search committee members that drew scrutiny from state officials.

“The Chancellor identified two areas of concern,” commented Levine. “The first involved a preference survey that the committee members utilized when determining which applicants to interview. At the time we had nearly 60 applicants. At that time, rather than taking an exorbitant amount of time, Trustee Finegold made a wise proposal that the members individually submit a list of their top candidates. The expectation was that this would allow us to demonstrate consensus, The Board of Governors’ representative on the committee enthusiastically endorsed the suggestion, saying he had previously used such methodology in prior searches.”

University System Chancellor Ray Rodrigues also expressed concerns regarding the straw poll and highlighted that the ranking system was submitted confidentially to the contracted search firm, thereby raising concerns regarding transparency and compliance with state statutes.

Levine, however, pointed to a legal opinion provided by constitutional lawyers which states that the use of the preference survey does not violate any standing state law.

“The preference survey was just that — simply a survey. It was not a vote,” remarked Levine.

In a letter composed by Rodrigues to Levine, the Chancellor further pointed to allegedly inappropriate inquiries regarding a candidate’s sexual orientation, gender, and preferred pronouns, potentially contravening 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.”

In response on Tuesday, Levine stated that the university had no involvement in composing the questions sent to applicants.

“These items were sent to the candidates by our consulting form. They were not sent out by FAU. The first item was a voluntary survey that ABG utilizes in all its searches nationwide to help them gauge the diversity of applicants,” said Levine. “The second was a background authorization form for those who were selected to interview. It would be inappropriate for the committee to consider sexual orientation or gender identity when making a decision, however, this did not happen. Neither the committee nor the university knew of these questions being asked of the candidates.”

Levine added that ABG routinely features similar questions on contracted survey projects for its internal data. The Board of Governors’ Inspector General has been provided with ‘thousands of pages’ of requested material for the state investigation, according to Levine, and is expected to complete the inquiry in November.

“We feel strongly that our search complied with all legal requirements and we would like to resume our search as soon as possible,” he concluded.

As a result of the suspension, the campus visits and open forums scheduled for the three finalists have been canceled. The finalists were 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.

Notably, the freeze was implemented just days after Rep. Randy Fine, who was the preferred candidate for the position by the Executive Office of Gov. Ron DeSantis, was not named as a finalist. Fine claimed in late March that he was under consideration as a candidate 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 Gov. Ron DeSantis approached Fine, encouraging the Republican lawmaker to pursue the position of leadership and referring to him as a “good candidate for the job.”

The statement came 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. An attempt to reach the office of Rep. Fine in July immediately following the implementation of the suspension was not responded to.

Attempts to contact the Florida State University System went unanswered.


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