Legislation to restrict access to presidential searches in Florida moves forward

FLORIDA — A Florida bill that would limit public access to records related to searches for presidents, provosts and deans at public universities was approved by a House committee earlier this month.

Under the proposal, universities would be required to disclose a final group of candidates, rather than all applicants, for executive positions. Meetings where applicant identities are discussed would be closed. There is no specific requirement for how many finalists must be identified.

Allowing schools to conduct private searches is a way to make Florida a more competitive state when it comes to higher education, said Florida Rep. Dave Kerner, a Democrat who is sponsoring the bill.

“Sunshine laws are an invaluable tool of the public, but we should not be afraid to find effective balances,” Kerner said.

By offering candidates some measure of confidentiality, Florida schools are more likely to attract a larger group of prestigious applicants for top university positions, Kerner said.

Kerner said he believed the legislation could actually bring “more disclosure” to the selection process. He cited an article by The Tallahassee Democrat, which reported that five of six semifinalists for president at Florida A&M University “did not submit their applications until … about 12 hours” before the university search panel’s meeting to determine the group.

“A cynical person would say the selection process had already occurred” before those candidates applied, Kerner said. The university selected its new president six days later.

The legislation would require schools give a 21-day window between announcing finalists and making their final selection. This would ensure the public has a guaranteed amount of time to vet candidates, Kerner said.

The bill must move through two more committees before it hits the House floor. A similar bill was introduced in the Senate on Friday by Republican Alan Hays.

The House committee’s sole dissenter, Rep. Michelle Rehwinkel Vasilinda, said she voted against the bill because taxpayers have a right to know what happens at public institutions, and there’s no evidence to suggest that Florida would attract better candidates under the legislation.

“The people, the citizens and the alumni have the right to know what’s going on at the highest level of the university,” said Rehwinkel Vasilinda, a Democrat. “I think the press ought to be able to report on the whole process, not just who made the last class.”

Florida’s universities have “great presidents,” and all of them were selected “in the sunshine,” she said. There isn’t a problem to be fixed, Rehwinkel Vasilinda said.

Miami-based media attorney Thomas Julin said even with a guaranteed 21 days to look into final candidates, the public is losing access to important information.

“More than anything, what you want to have is a process that is open,” Julin said. “There always will be people who will try to design ways to evade the requirements. … Whatever technique you have, there will always be that problem.”

If the legislation is approved, there is no way for the public to hold university officials accountable if they ignore diversity when considering applicants, said Sandra Chance, executive director of the Brechner Center for Freedom of Information at the University of Florida.

“It’s impossible to know that we have a diverse group — minorities and women — and that every prospective candidate has been considered appropriately” under this bill, she said. “These sunshine laws protect against backroom deals.”

Chance said there isn’t a need to veil these searches when openness has served Florida’s universities well in choosing their presidents.

Florida Atlantic University selected its new president earlier this month. Lulu Ramadan, editor-in-chief of the University Press, said she reported on the university’s presidential search. It’s a “ridiculous notion” that any part of it should be confidential, she said.

“I feel like once you’re going for a public position like president of a university, you lose your right to anonymity,” Ramadan said.

By Rex Santus, SPLC staff writer. Contact Santus by email or at (703) 807-1904 ext. 119.