Fla. bill would allow universities to hire presidents, other executive positions behind closed doors

FLORIDA — Presidential searches at Florida’s public universities could be conducted in secret under a bill proposed last week to modify the state’s public records and meetings laws — a reincarnation of legislation the same senator proposed last year.

The bill would provide a public records exemption for any personally identifying information about an applicant applying to be president, provost or dean of a a state university or Florida College System institution, according to the bill which Sen. Alan Hays, R-Umatilla, introduced. This would keep the names, credentials and salaries of most applicants secret. While the institutions would be required to release information about final candidates 10 days before making a selection, it does not specify how many finalists must be identified.

Additionally, any meeting held to identify or vet applicants would be exempt from the state’s public meetings law, including meetings to discuss applicants’ qualifications or pay.

During Florida’s previous legislative session, university executive search bills were introduced in both the Senate and House.

The most recent move to bring executive searches behind closed doors comes a few months after students protested the Florida State University Board of Trustees’ decision to hire former state Sen. John Thrasher as president, a selection process Barbara Petersen, president of Florida’s First Amendment Foundation called “hugely embarrassing.”

“FSU is not for sale,” some students chanted after the board voted to hire Thrasher in September, the Miami Herald reported at the time. Critics charged the search process was rigged in favor of Thrasher, who left the Senate for the job and was previously House speaker and a lobbyist. Allan Bense, the Board of Trustees chairman, had worked with Thrasher in the House.

Public records The Associated Press obtained show a hiring consultant said the university was trying to use a search process that would result in Thrasher’s selection.

For years supporters of closed executive searches at Florida universities have argued the state’s public records and meetings laws scare away applicants who don’t want their current employers to know they’re applying for jobs elsewhere.

Potential candidates’ fear of losing their current jobs “as a consequence of attempting to progress along their chosen career path or seeking different and more rewarding employment” could create a “chilling effect” on the number and quality of job applicants, the bill argues.

Hays could not be reached for comment.

Petersen questioned the legitimacy of this argument, referring to Thrasher’s predecessor Eric Barron, who resigned from FSU to become president of Pennsylvania State University.

“Why did Eric Barron get hired away from us if he was such a lousy president and such a poor candidate?” Petersen said. “Presidential searches, the dean searches, have been in the sunshine for decades, and we’ve had some damn good presidents and some damn good provosts and some damn good deans.”

Contact SPLC staff writer Mark Keierleber by email or at (202) 833-4614.