Senate committee approves Fla. closed college presidential search bill

FLORIDA — Florida is one step closer to moving most college presidential search details behind closed doors, after a Senate committee’s vote last week.

After adding several amendments, the Senate Governmental Oversight and Accountability Committee approved legislation on March 4 that would carve out a public records exemption for the applicants seeking top university jobs. The Rules Committee must approve the bill before it appears before the full Senate.

The bill, which Sen. Alan Hays introduced on Dec. 12, provides a public records exemption for any personally identifying information about an applicant for university president, provost or dean at a state university or a Florida College System institution. It would allow institutions to withhold the names, credentials and salaries of most applicants.

Though it does not specify how many finalists must be named, an amendment would require institutions to release the names of finalists 30 days before it makes a selection. Before the oversight committee amendment, the bill required universities to release information about finalists 10 days before making a selection.

Barbara Petersen, the president of Florida’s First Amendment Foundation, said the amendment is “an attempt at compromise that I appreciate, but it doesn’t get to the underlying fact that we still don’t know who the candidates were.” She said colleges frequently name only one finalist.

The bill would also exempt from the state’s public meetings law any meeting held to identify or vet an applicant. However, an oversight committee amendment clarified that the public could attend any portion of a meeting held to discuss the qualifications or compensation offered to potential applicants.

Hays proposed similar legislation last year. Despite their implications for students, faculty, alumni and other members of the campus community, closed presidential searches are common at institutions across the country.

Hays did not respond to a telephone call or email requesting comment.

Petersen refuted an argument that the state’s Sunshine Law hindered Florida college’s ability to attract top-tier applicants.

“I’ve talked to people on presidential search committees who have told me that the problem is not the Sunshine Law,” Petersen said. “The problem is the lack of support for higher education in the state of Florida.”

Petersen said Gov. Rick Scott’s push to ensure college completion in four years and his policies to operate colleges more like a business are “concerning for most academics.”

The bill follows Florida State University’s presidential search, which some students and faculty criticized when the board of trustees selected former state Sen. John Thrasher over a list of finalists with academic rather than political backgrounds.

Contact SPLC staff writer Mariana Viera by email or at (202) 478-1926.