State University System orders pause on Florida Atlantic presidential search

by | Jul 10, 2023

  • The search for the next president of Florida Atlantic University (FAU) has been suspended due to concerns over transparency breaches in the selection process.
  • Allegations include inappropriate inquiries about a candidate’s sexual orientation, gender, and preferred pronouns, potentially violating Equal Employment Opportunity Commission regulations.
  • Concerns were also raised about the use of a straw poll and the confidentiality of rankings submitted to the search firm, raising questions about transparency and compliance with state statutes.
  • The sudden pause on the search process has led some to accuse the state university system of working to benefit the governor, who reportedly preferred Rep. Randy Fine as a candidate for the position.

The State University System of Florida suspended the search for the next president of Florida Atlantic University (FAU) on Saturday 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. These violations allegedly involved 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.”

Rodrigues also expressed concerns about the utilization of a straw poll in which search committee members ranked their preferred candidates from a pool of nearly 60 applicants. In his letter, the Chancellor additionally highlighted that these rankings were submitted confidentially to the contracted search firm, thereby raising concerns regarding transparency and compliance with state statutes.

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.

FAU’s presidential search committee stated that they decided on the finalists following in-person interviews with several semi-finalists, trimming down an applicant pool comprising individuals with experience in academia and other high-level positions, including 12 current or former university or system presidents.

“On behalf of the entire university, I extend heartfelt thanks to the Presidential Search Committee for their phenomenal work,” said Levine, who also chaired the Presidential Search Committee. “The outstanding quality of the applicant pool that was generated for this position is truly inspiring.”

The university has agreed to halt the search, taking to Twitter to confirm the news.

“Following a written request from the Chancellor of the Florida State University System Board of Governors, FAU Board of Trustees Chair Brad Levine has agreed to suspend the university’s presidential search until further notice.”

Notably, the freeze comes 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, 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 was not immediately answered.

The sudden pause placed upon FAU’s search has led some, including state Representative Anna Eskamani, to question if it holds ulterior political motives, accusing the State University System of playing 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 (BOG) who oversee the State University System are freezing the entire search process,” said state Representative Anna Eskamani. “FAU is being targeted for purely political reasons. It’s gross and an insult to academic freedom and integrity.”

FAU’s Board of Trustees selected Stacy Volnick last October to serve as the university’s interim president after the outgoing John Kelly stepped down. Volnick has worked as part of FAU’s administrative staff since 1991, becoming Vice president for Administrative Affairs and Chief Administrative Officer in 2013. Prior to her appointment as interim president, she served as the school’s Chief Operating Officer.

FAU noted that Volnick did not apply to become the permanent president.

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