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Wednesday, June 19, 2024

UF Faculty Senate President: Search committee had no choice in naming one presidential finalist

Other presidential finalists requested to stay anonymous if not the sole finalist

When UF announced Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Nebraska, as the sole finalist of its more than six-month-long search for the university's 13th president, the campus community also learned he would be coming to campus four days later. 

However, despite Monday's fiery protest that disrupted Sasse's three open forums with faculty, students and staff, his scheduled visit on Nov. 1 will continue as planned, UF spokesperson Cynthia Roldan said. 

Many felt the announcement of Sasse's status as the sole finalist indicated a journey with a predetermined destination.

But in an interview with The Alligator, Faculty Senate President Amanda Phalin said the search committee didn't have another choice. 

Besides the forums, one of Sasse's unpublicized meetings Monday morning was an introductory lunch with the current members of the president's cabinet, Phalin said.

Of the dozen final candidates the presidential search committee zeroed in on, all of them said they would drop out of the running unless they were named the sole finalist, Phalin said. Under the new search conditions created by a new Florida law, UF had no obligation to release the identity of any shortlist of candidates until three weeks before those individuals would interview with the UF Board of Trustees. 

Phalin cited the structure of Senate Bill 520, a 2022 Florida law that limits the transparency of presidential searches. 

"[With SB520], it's an expected consequence in my mind," Phalin said. "If you're looking for somebody to come to and talk to a place like UF, you're going to draw top-tier people who don't want their names to be out there publicly for three weeks."

Many at UF expected a small group of candidates to be announced, similar to the 2014 search that ended with the selection of President Kent Fuchs.

The Oct. 6 UF press release that announced Sasse as the finalist mentioned the university courted a dozen highly qualified, diverse candidates — nine of them being current presidents of major research universities.  

No university president wants to publicly put their name in the running for the same position at another school, lose out, then presumably return to their university, Phalin said.

"So the choice that the search committee was left with was to either lose all of the candidates, or to name one candidate," Phalin said.

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Phalin compared the search to Florida International University's, where all but one nominee dropped out of contention near the end of the process.

To Phalin, neither the previous presidential search processes before nor after SB 520 are ideal.

"I think that the privacy of the process did allow more qualified candidates and more candidates to come into the pool," Phalin said. "When you're dealing with a place like UF, there is a balance that has to be struck between openness and transparency in the process, but also the privacy of top tier candidates that are being considered."

State Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St.Petersburg, a co-sponsor of SB 520, told the Tampa Bay Times Wednesday that UF didn't fulfill his vision for the legislation.

"The goal was to get to finalists, not announce who the person was as the only finalist," Sen. Brandes told the Times. "I think what they've done is make it harder for the Legislature in the future to support reauthorizing [the law]. I think it was shortsighted so they can get their one candidate in."

She believes Sen. Sasse was the best candidate of the finalists, Phalin said.

"I had the chance to meet with the top candidates, including Dr. Sasse, before the decision was made." Phalin said. "I really believe in my experience that Dr. Sasse was the right choice out of the folks that I talked to."

Sasse will interview with the UF Board of Trustees at Emerson Alumni Hall Nov 1, pending board approval. Graduate Assistants United's Co-President Bryn Taylor said her organization has plans to protest the interview; and UF Young Democratic Socialists of America Chair Aron Ali-McClory said his group has discussed the need for its next action.

If Sasse is approved by the Board of Trustees, he would then have to be approved by the Florida Board of Governors later that month.

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Christian Casale

Christian Casale is a history senior and the university desk editor for The Alligator. In his spare time, he loves writing his bio for the website and watching movies alone in the dark.

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