Governor Rick Scott‘s bizarre decision to appoint his former chief of staff, Adam Hollingsworth, to a Board of Trustees position at the University of North Florida has, predictably, created a wave of justifiable outrage and needless controversy.
Earlier this week, the president of UNF’s faculty union, John White, laid out his reasoning for opposing Hollingsworth’s appointment. Speaking to a reporter from the Florida Times Union, White made it clear that Hollingsworth’s previous admission of academic fraud makes him unworthy to serve in academia:
“It seems to me someone should be disqualified from overseeing or evaluating the value of the degrees that we grant at UNF if they lied about having one,” White said. “Granted, that was a long time ago, but it seems to me it is an egregious affront to what we stand for at this university.”
Back in 2014, when Hollingsworth was serving as Scott’s third chief of staff, he became the center of unwanted attention. The Miami Herald revealed in a series of scathing articles that he had committed academic fraud on multiple occasions over a period of years by claiming a bachelor’s degree from the University of Alabama that he had not earned.
It’s not the kind of scandal people usually survive. Other public figures, including NCAA football coaches, the CEOs of Fortune 500 companies, and even university faculty – all caught similarly red-handed – had their careers flushed down the toilet.
And never mind something as egregious as academic fraud. By 2014, Rick Scott had developed a reputation for sacking anyone in his orbit that generated headlines that were inconsistent with or distracted from his goals as governor. The list of casualties who have been summarily sent packing is long and distinguished. Only 18 months earlier, Steve MacNamara, Hollingsworth’s immediate predecessor, earned a pink slip after a slew of headlines alleged ethical breaches. Along the way, a host of agency heads had been similarly forced to walk the plank for milder transgressions.
Defying the odds, perhaps only because Scott wanted to have some stability in his administration, Hollingsworth somehow managed to survive the crisis and keep his job through the remainder of the 2014 election cycle. But the damage to both Scott’s administration and Hollingsworth’s reputation had been done.
To his credit, since his departure from the Executive Office of the Governor, Hollingsworth has kept a low profile, avoiding the limelight and any potential controversy that might reflect poorly on Scott.
That is, until last month. That’s when Scott made the baffling decision to appoint him to the UNF Board of Trustees, to a position responsible for, among other things, promoting and upholding the university’s academic standards.
When news of the appointment broke, the “political apparatchik,” as Hollingsworth once derisively called Tallahassee’s insider community, marveled at the tone-deaf nature of the move. Questions zipped back and forth in text messages, emails, over lunch and in casual conversations:
Why would the governor open himself up to this kind of controversy? Did he think people wouldn’t remember? Did Hollingsworth ask for the appointment, believing against all odds that nobody would object? Why would Hollingsworth willingly reopen a near-fatal wound that will never fully heal? Is his appetite for Scott’s generosity not already sated by the fact he was mercifully allowed to keep his job the first time? Does he think an appointment in academia might somehow rehabilitate his tarnished reputation? How does this appointment enhance the Florida University System?
Ask and answer those questions a hundred ways, it doesn’t matter. The decision makes no sense. There are plenty of people available and trusted by Rick Scott who were and are perfectly qualified to serve as trustees on UNF’s board, and who also meet the incredibly low standard of never having committed any form of academic fraud.
There are also plenty of board appointments that Hollingsworth could seek that wouldn’t generate controversy. He could ask his political allies to appoint him to the board of directors at the Jacksonville Zoo, for example, or perhaps the Jacksonville Symphony. Sure, he’s neither a zoologist nor a world-class oboist, but neither is he an academic. And at least in the former, he never falsely claimed to be, either.
But Governor Scott shares some of the blame here, too. He made a bad decision that has the potential to damage the core of his legacy as governor: reshaping the state’s university system. Scott has been pushing for more STEM degrees and faster and less costly pathways to graduation, among a number of other reforms. No doubt he thought Hollingsworth might help accelerate that push at UNF, but he clearly misjudged the extent of the damage from Hollingsworth’s self-inflicted wound.
UNF’s John White and others are right to demand the highest academic standards from the governor’s appointees to university boards. And the right move for Hollingsworth here is to resign, not only out of deference to Florida’s university system at large and UNF in particular, but also out of deference to Rick Scott’s legacy. A few years back, that’s something to which both Hollingsworth and I have personally agreed is important.