State University System recommends restart to FAU presidential search

by | Dec 7, 2023

  • An audit released by the State University System of Florida’s Inspector General on Thursday highlighted legal and procedural issues in Florida Atlantic University’s presidential search, recommending a complete restart of the process. 
  • The audit further suggests that FAU Board of Trustees Chair Brad Levine should not serve as the chair of the next Presidential Search Committee.
  • The document supports a prior ruling given by State Attorney General Ashley Moody’s findings, indicating potential Sunshine Law violations due to a lack of transparency while raising issues about the security of confidential candidate information.

Florida Atlantic University (FAU) on Thursday was handed a significant setback in its presidential search as an audit conducted by the State University System of Florida’s Inspector General outlined identified procedural and compliance issues, recommending a complete restart of the process.

The 41-page report, issued by the Office of Inspector General and Director of Compliance (OIGC), scrutinizes a preference survey used by the university’s search committee to narrow down presidential candidates, raising questions about its legality and implementation. The audit states that investigators examined the questionnaires administered to applicants, with concerns raised about their appropriateness and how they were used in screening candidates.

Last month, State Attorney General Ashley Moody determined that administering the survey contravened Florida Sunshine Laws due to a lack of public transparency, an assertion corroborated by Thursday’s audit. Concerns were also raised regarding its compliance with legal standards and the potential impact on the fairness of the candidate selection process.

“The legality of using a preference survey conducted by a third party whereby members anonymously ranked candidates during a presidential search and selection process was questioned in light of Florida’s Sunshine Law,” the report reads.

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.

The report secondarily noted concerns regarding the security of confidential candidate information, particularly the use of a shared account for accessing such data.

“During the investigative review, OIGC staff tested … [the] ShareFile site using the credentials provided to the Presidential Search Committee,” the audit continues. “OIGC staff was able to access the site and confirmed it contained confidential candidate materials, committee materials, and confidential due-diligence reports.”

The report also reviewed allegations of external pressure to favor certain candidates — likely pertaining to the candidate status of Rep. Randy Fine — and concludes that there was insufficient evidence to support claims of undue influence or direction in the selection process.

“During the course of this investigative review, concerns were raised by FAU about the university being pressured to give favor to or advance a specific candidate. [Trustee Tim Cerio] recall[ed] that … they talked about the FAU presidential search and discussed an individual who had been highlighted by the media as being a potential candidate,” the audit states. “There is insufficient evidence to support that the university was directed or pressured to advance or select any specific candidate.

In light of the findings, the report recommends a complete restart of the presidential search process and suggests that FAU Board of Trustees Chair Brad Levine should not serve as the chair of the next Presidential Search Committee.

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 Levine, the state university board highlighted instances of transparency breaches during the selection process.

During an August Board of Trustees meeting, Levine defended the university’s search methodology and outlined tools used to aid in FAU’s search, including the straw poll distributed among search committee members that drew scrutiny.

“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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