Florida International University will soon have to find a permanent replacement for former President Mark B. Rosenberg. In the meantime, Tallahassee lawmakers are concocting a way to keep the public in the dark for much of that process.
A bill is advancing — quickly — in the Florida Legislature to keep the names and private information of candidates vying to become state university and college presidents a secret. The public wouldn’t know who they are until there’s a final group of applicants and at least 21 days before the date of the interviews with the finalists or a final decision, under the Senate version.
Just like Rosenberg’a abrupt resignation was clouded in secrecy — on Friday he said he was leaving because of health issues, but then news broke that an employee accused him of harassment — this bill will keep even more from Floridians. It will prevent them from fully knowing how their tax dollars are being used, which is why the Herald Editorial Board named it one of the five worst bills introduced in 2022. The legislation needs approval from two-thirds of the Florida Senate and House because it would create yet another public-records exemption.
May we remind lawmakers that the mission of our universities and colleges is to serve the public, not the interests of power brokers who orchestrate presidential selections and often run for those posts. (For example, former Florida State University President John Thrasher was a Florida House speaker, senator and GOP chair before his appointment.)
Lawmakers have been trying to pass this legislation for years, providing a doozy of an excuse for Senate Bill 520 and its House companion.
“House Bill 703 seeks to ensure the Florida law does not disincentivize our state university system . . . [from] attracting the deepest, most qualified diverse group of applicants,” Clay County Republican Rep. Sam Garrison said, as reported by Florida Politics.
We doubt the only way Florida’s higher-education institutions can attract the “deepest” candidates is to provide them the shield of anonymity. Wouldn’t those high-caliber candidates expect to become at least finalists, when their names would become public anyway? Plus, if you’re trying to lead a research university with the size and prominence of FIU, you should be capable of withstanding public scrutiny.
Miami has learned the hard way the perils of a backroom selection process. When Miami Mayor Francis Suarez announced that he had hired Police Chief Art Acevedo without having him go through the city’s public search process, he said we were getting the “Michael Jordan of police chiefs.” But without buy-in from the community and the City Commission, Acevedo lasted only six months on the job.
Soon after Rosenberg’s resignation, Chief Financial Officer Kenneth Jessell was named the interim president. It’s unclear whether he will pursue the permanent position. Whoever is in the running must prove they can maintain and improve FIU’s rising standing in national rankings while continuing to be the top institution in the United States in enrolling and graduating Hispanic students. It’s a tough job, and applicants must be vetted not only by the university’s board of trustees, but also by community stakeholders and media organizations that must have full access to information.
FIU is not the only top public university in Florida that will need a new leader. University of Florida President Kent Fuchs said this month that 2022 will be his last year in office, making the bill’s timing suspicious. His announcement happened in the midst of the outcry that UF tried to block professors from testifying in a lawsuit against Gov. DeSantis’ administration and faculty accusations of political interference in the classroom. A professor has filed an academic freedom grievance against the university, alleging he was asked to change the name of his curriculum to remove any references to critical race theory, which DeSantis and Republicans don’t want taught in schools.
With academic freedom already under threat, keeping the public uninformed about the process of choosing university leaders further opens the door for the politically connected and ideologues. Florida, heralded for its government-in-the-sunshine laws, should live up to its legacy and not let our prestigious institutions of higher education be a casualty of politics.