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Committee votes to increase secrecy of university presidential searches, fundraising


Applicants for top positions at Florida's colleges and universities would remain confidential unless they are named finalists, under a proposal moving in the House. The Higher Education and Workforce Subcommittee approved House Bill 135 as well as a separate Sunshine Law exemption that would allow university fundraising arms to meet in secret to discuss potential donors and strategy.

Colleges and universities in Florida have long complained that the state's broad public meeting laws stifle search processes, scaring off potential candidates who don't want to be identified as applying for new jobs they might not get. HB 135 would allow searches for presidents, provosts and deans to remain secret in the initial phases; only the names of applicants who become finalists would be shared with the public. Under current law, every applicant is made public the minute they throw a hat in the ring.

Panel vice chairman Rep. Ray Rodrigues, R-Estero, advocated in favor of both bills. He said House Bill 135, which requires a 21-day waiting period before college and university boards vote to approve their choice for top positions, could actually improve transparency during the process.

"This bill actually I think interjects some sunshine in the process where there is none. What we currently have in practice is we'll have a vacancy and it will be posted for 30 days and on day 30, the afternoon of day 30 is when all the real applications come in from all the heavy weight candidates."

Rodrigues pointed out that univesities tend to move quickly to chose finalists and make a final selection once the application deadline ends. That doesn't give stakeholders enough time to vet the candidates and discuss their strengths and weaknesses, he said.

For example, Florida A&M University named six finalists for the open presidency position on Friday and its Board of Trustees plans to make it selection Thursday, a six-day turnaround. Florida Atlantic University, which is also looking for a new president, selected 10 finalists Monday and hopes to make its choice on Jan. 17. 

If HB 135 were in effect now, we might not have ever known that former State Sen. Al Lawson Jr. applied at FAMU since he wasn't among the finalists. Rep. Michelle Rewinkel Vasilinda, D-Tallahassee, was the sole opposing voice to the proposal.

The public deserves to know who all the applicants for these positions are, and the deliberations about who becomes a finalist and why should not happen behind closed doors, she said.

"I think we’ve carried along quite nicely in this way, and the over-arching consideration is for people to know what the context and the choice was," Rewinkel Vasilinda said.

The House subcommittee also voted in favor of House Bill 115, which would allow university foundations or other fundraising arms to meet privately. The Senate's Education Committee also approved its version of that proposal, Senate Bill 318, today. 

As of now, HB 135 has no Senate companion. Both House bills must be approved by two other committees before they reach the floor. Because these are public record and public meeting exemptions, a two-thirds vote is required for passage.