Senate Rules Committee moves to keep college and university president applicants secret

by | Feb 27, 2020

Florida legislators want to make information about the candidates applying for state colleges and university president posts a secret, at least initially.

The bill would make personal information of the applicants, including discussion involving the selection process, a secret. Information about candidates who are selected as finalists would be required to be disclosed publicly, but only 21 days before a college or university chooses the candidate. This is the only transparent component of the legislation. 

Florida’s sunshine laws exist to increase transparency of government practices, deliberations and state business. The state constitution provides that the public has the right to inspect or copy any records made or received in connection with official governmental business. 

The bill would prevent Floridians from knowing the identity and personal information of candidates who apply for university and college president jobs, but would ultimately allow the public to know which candidates were chosen as finalists within three weeks of a final decision. Applicants who were not selected as finalists would not be disclosed. 

The legislation is designed to broaden the pool of applicants available to Florida’s state university system. Under current law, the names of all applicants must be disclosed publicly, which in many cases, discourages otherwise qualified individuals from submitting an application. Some potential applicants, fearing that public disclosure of their interest in a new job would hurt their relationship with their current employer, might decline to apply for the new position at all.

The bill passed its first two committees, Education and Governmental Oversight and Accountability and today it passed the Rules committee. It must still pass a full vote in Senate before also being adopted in the House.

Senator Manny Diaz Jr., the bill’s sponsor. explained the functionality of the bill,

“There are two parts to it, the first part is the initial application when someone gauges interest or applies, and the second being the people who are actually going to be considered for the position would become public, and at that point you [the public] would have the ability to weigh in and support that person.”

The bill found bipartisan support and opposition. 

Dr. Rich Templin, speaking on behalf of the AFL-CIO, testified before the Rules Committee that the university community has the right to know who the applicants are for the position, not just the names of the finalist, and attempted to debunk the claim that Florida schools were not already attracting the best and brightest applicants out of fear they might harm their existing jobs. 

“The academic community is absolutely accustomed to academics looking for other jobs, looking to become a part of other academic institutions,” Templin said. “If you go back you will not find instances where Presidents were turned down for looking for other positions.”

Senator Jeff Brandes,  who supports the bill, said it will help to streamline the process and provide a better pool of applicants. He also explained that some schools use executive search firms which may be exempt from Florida’s sunshine laws.  

“The firms will select the top three candidates so that these are the candidates ultimately forwarded to the board via the agreement with the search firm,” Brandes explained. “Senator Diaz’s bill will actually alleviate the process and will actually put Floridians back in control.” 

Senator Tom Lee called the proposed legislation an embarrassment if passed.

“Without a process that defines how university and state college presidents are hired, we can’t have a public records exemption,” Lee argued. “What Senator Brandes’ is arguing for is more reforming the rights of these university or state college systems to use a search firm to conceal from the public. I think this is going to embarrass us, and I would encourage this committee to oppose this today,” said Lee.

The Rules committee passed the bill with bipartisan support.

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