Florida legislature considering bill that would close presidential searches

FLORIDA — A Florida representative has reintroduced a bill that, if enacted, would exempt public colleges from having to disclose the names of executive candidates.

Meetings where officials discuss identifying information of presidential, provost or dean candidates would also be exempt from the state’s open meetings act. Public colleges would be required to release the names of finalists at least 21 days before officials meet publicly to make a final selection. If passed, it would take effect Oct. 1, 2014.

Rep. Dave Kerner, a Democrat and University of Florida alumnus, said the previous term’s version of the bill, sponsored by Republican Rep. John Tobia, easily passed through several House committees but ultimately failed because it did not have a sponsor in the Senate. This version has the support of Republican Sen. Jeff Brandes, Kerner said.

“We’re excited to see it have bicameral support at this point,” he said.

Kerner said he became interested in sponsoring the bill after seeing a University of Houston Law Center journal article that looked at two 2004 presidential searches. The article described how the University of Tennessee, which conducted an open search, had fewer presidential applicants than the University of Utah, which has no legal requirement to disclose candidates’ names to the public.

Kerner said he believes that Florida’s current sunshine laws could discourage candidates from applying for executive positions and that he wants to ensure the state has a “wider and better” applicant pool. He said he hasn’t heard either candidates themselves or any schools express concern to him over the current laws, but said he has since read in a news article that one Florida administrator said a recent presidential search at the University of Florida could have attracted more candidates had they been allowed to keep their names private.

“I’m not going to get anyone on record saying ‘I don’t want to apply for a job because I don’t want it to be public,’” Kerner said.

Dylan Bouscher, the editor-in-chief of the University Press at Florida Atlantic University, said the proposed law would have a negative impact on the paper’s ability to inform the school about presidential searches. He also said student reporters have already had trouble trying to get information from administrators about the school’s current search without the additional exemptions.

“Passing that law is not in the best interest of faculty, students, staff or taxpayers,” he said.

Barbara Petersen, president of Florida’s First Amendment Foundation, said she has “no idea” why Kerner reintroduced the bill and said she hasn’t seen any evidence that the state’s public records and open meetings laws have made it difficult to find strong executives.

“To say we don’t get good candidates for these top positions because of our open government laws is pure hogwash,” she said. “Look at the presidents of our state universities, who were all hired under the sunshine, by the way. Can anyone say we could have done better? Who makes the final list is as important as who does not.”

Kerner said he respects Petersen’s concerns and would welcome suggestions about the new bill from the First Amendment Foundation and other open government advocates.

“We legislators have to admit that sometimes (the laws) aren’t perfect. Sometimes you have to change the law,” Kerner said. “We’ve seen that the sunshine law has had an unintended consequence, and I’m trying to rectify that.”

Bouscher said the public has the right to know who is applying for schools’ top positions, as well as whether leaders in the state are actively seeking new jobs.

“If they don’t want people to know that, they shouldn’t be seeking public office,” he said.

By Samantha Vicent, SPLC staff writer. Contact Vicent by email or at (703) 807-1904 ext. 126.