Florida Attorney General: FAU’s presidential search breached Sunshine Laws

by | Nov 1, 2023

  • Florida Atlantic University’s (FAU) presidential selection process was found by State Attorney General Ashley Moody to violate Florida’s transparency laws.
  • The search committee allegedly used a search firm to anonymously rank and narrow down candidates without public disclosure, breaching Sunshine Law statutes. 
  • Due to concerns over transparency breaches during the selection process, the State University System of Florida suspended FAU’s presidential search.

State Attorney General Ashley Moody determined this week that Florida Atlantic University’s (FAU) method of selecting its next president contravened Florida Sunshine Laws.

Per Moody, the search committee’s consultation and subsequent private communication with a search firm violated the laws due to a lack of public transparency. The committee allegedly narrowed a list of 60 potential presidential candidates to 20 by covertly informing the firm of their preferences, breaching statutes ordering that meetings and records must be fully open to the public.

“The state’s Sunshine Law doesn’t allow search committee members to use a search firm to anonymously rank candidates,” wrote Moody. “It appears that the very purpose of the process is to inject secrecy into the deliberative process.”

While certain discussions related to university presidential searches were made confidential to the public as per a 2022 law, they still must be held “on the record” in the presence of other committee members. In her filing, Moody brought attention to exemptions for certain committee meetings but clarified that they only apply when the committee meets all exemption criteria, such as recording the entirety of the meeting.

“With regard to the open meetings requirements of the Sunshine Law, the statute provides that any portion of a meeting held for identifying or vetting applicants for the position of president of such university or institution is exempt from the requirement to hold a meeting open to the public,” continued Moody. “But the statute specifically requires recording any closed portion of any such meeting and provides an exemption from public records disclosure requirements for the recording.”

In July, the State University System of Florida suspended FAU’s search due to concerns over self-described 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 highlighted instances of transparency breaches during the selection process.

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

In an August Board of Trustees meeting, Levine defended the university’s search methodology. During his opening remarks, he outlined the tools used to aid in FAU’s search, including the straw poll distributed among search committee members that drew scrutiny from state officials.

“At the time we had nearly 60 applicants. Rather than taking an exorbitant amount of time, Trustee Feingold made a wise proposal that the members individually submit a list of their top candidates,” said Levine. “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.”

Levine further pointed to a legal opinion provided by constitutional lawyers which stated 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.

Moody responded to Levine’s statement in her filing, asserting that what Levine labeled as a vote doesn’t fall under relevant limitations.

“Sunshine Law does not permit members to use anonymous communications with an intermediary search firm about their preferences for certain candidates, she wrote. “Overall, in the absence of an applicable exemption, the Sunshine Law prohibits ranking that occurs by way of anonymously surveying and organizing members’ input, even if those rankings are not a final vote and are only used to replace or limit discussion at a future meeting.”


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