The search for UF’s next president could be affected by a bill that would prohibit part of the appointment process from being accessible to the public.
UF expects to start looking for a new president in March, UF spokesperson Hessy Fernandez wrote in an email. The search has been kept under wraps so far, and SB 520/HB 703 would keep it that way.
UF President Kent Fuchs announced his resignation Jan. 5 in a campus-wide email and video message. He will remain in his presidential role for the remainder of the year until a new president is appointed.
Meanwhile, Florida’s senators and representatives have filed Senate Bill 520 and House Bill 703, which would delay the release of any information identifying a university’s presidential applicant, including meeting recordings that would disclose such information if obtained through a public records request.
“I think [the bill] will be exceptionally positive for the Florida university systems,” said Florida Senator Jeff Brandes (R), sponsor of SB 520. “You are going to get a broader pool of applicants; you are going to get better applicants who now can apply without fear their previous employer will know.”
Brandes believes the bill will provide more transparency; he said the current process is run largely by headhunting firms who ask applicants to not apply until they reach the final candidates.
Presidential searches at most state universities around the country are not subject to public records law, Brandes said. Florida has one of the broadest public records law in the country, and this bill should allow universities to pull from the best applicants in the nation, he said.
There will be a 21-day period when the faculty senate and student leadership can meet with the potential finalists and help the board make an informed decision, he said.
But even with this period, some representatives find the bill to be an unnecessary lack of transparency.
“I don’t see a reason to put this all behind closed doors,” Florida Rep. Evan Jenne (D) said.
Jenne will be voting against the bill’s new proposal; however, he said he voted in favor of its past variations. The bill has been debated each year for at least five years, he said.
The last time there was a presidential appointment, accomplished candidates — some from Ivy League schools — were selected, Jenne said.
The search for UF’s next president is occurring alongside the state’s gubernatorial election, which complicates things as politicians continue to step over the line and enter academia to politically influence the way students are taught, he said.
“I think universities and colleges need to be given room to breathe,” Jenne said. “Politicians need to stay out of the way of universities and stop trying to overlay their own belief system on an academic institution.”
Almost two weeks after Fuchs announced his resignation, gubernatorial candidate and Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services Commissioner Nikki Fried wrote a letter to the Board of Trustees.
The letter reiterated the concerns faculty members, students, alumni and the general public all express about the ongoing issue.
“Allow me to express in the clearest terms,” Fried wrote. “It is absolutely necessary that the search for the university’s next president be fully ethical, transparent, and nonpartisan, free from all political influence.”
UF’s ongoing academic freedom scandal garnered national attention about the state government’s influence on the university’s administration. In October, the university denied three political science professors the ability to testify in a court case against the state.
Because four Board of Trustees members have political ties to Gov. Ron DeSantis and donate to his campaign, the decision raised concerns about how much influence the state has over university decisions.
If DeSantis is reelected, Jenne said he believes the governor will continue to try and remake the Board of Trustees in his own image while the Democratic candidates opposing DeSantis would try to give some authority back to institutions.
Rep. Geraldine Thompson (D), who has voted against the bill every time it’s surfaced, said she believes politics will certainly leak into the appointment process based on the academic freedom issues occurring at the university.
The governor replaces the Board of Trustee members as their terms end, which indirectly applies the governor’s influence on administrative decisions, like presidential appointments, Thompson said.
Two new board members will be appointed when Thomas Kuntz and Daniel O’Keefe end their five-year-long terms in January 2023.
The chair of the board, who selects a search committee under the guidance of the Florida Board of Governors, has a particularly crucial role, said David Bloom, UF’s Faculty Senate chair.
The committee must include at least three members from the university’s board, a member of the Florida Board of Governors and members of the faculty and student body, according to the Florida Board of Governors’ regulations.
None of the committee members can be drawn from the current president’s cabinet.
As they begin the process, the committee will set up criteria for the next president, Bloom said.
“The search for and selection of the University of Florida’s next president hold great significance,” UF spokesperson Fernandez wrote. “The university is taking its time during the planning of that process to make sure that the search is as thoughtful and successful as possible.”
But concerns about the potential political influence and lack of transparency during the upcoming appointment persist despite UF’s assurance.
Irene Mulvey, president of the American Association of University Professors, released a statement Jan. 25 expressing her concerns on academic integrity and the pending presidential appointment.
The AAUP is speaking out because it seems UF is again in a position to stray away from the mission of higher education to serve the common good, Mulvey wrote.
“This is yet another attempt to control the truth,” she wrote. “To enable them to make a decision on a new president without any of the requisite and valuable input from the faculty and staff that the new president will lead.”
Contact Elena Barrera at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter at @elenabarreraaa.
Elena is a second-year journalism major with a minor in health sciences. She is currently the University Administration reporter for The Alligator. When she is not writing, Elena loves to work out, go to the beach and spend time with her friends and family.