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Get the latest coverage of the 2021 Florida legislative session in Tallahassee from our coverage partners and WUSF.

A Move To Keep The Initial Applicants Of State College And University Presidents Private Has Failed

The bill would have shielded the identities of anyone applying for a job as a state university or college president.

A measure that would create a public records exemption for university presidential candidates failed in the Florida Senate Tuesday. Since the measure would have changed the state’s public record laws, it needed a two-thirds majority vote to pass.

The bill would have shielded the identities of anyone applying for a job as a state university or college president. But it would have made the names of finalists public at least 21 days before any interviews or final decisions could happen.

Supporters of the bill say keeping the names of applicants private would help Florida’s colleges and universities attract higher quality candidates. Sen. Ray Rodrigues (R-Fort Meyers) says he’s been working at Florida Gulf Coast University for 15 years. During that time he’s watched as his university has gone through two presidential searches.

“Two different search firms—both of them have given the same message to our trustees. Which is that Florida’s public records law depresses the number of candidates for president at a university here in the state of Florida,” Rodrigues says.

“When you put your name out there and your employers know you’re looking, it becomes an issue if you don’t get the job.”

But Sen. Gary Farmer (D-Fort Lauderdale) argues keeping the names of candidates public is an important part of ensuring the candidates who apply are high quality. During a floor discussion about the bill Farmer pointed to several cautionary tales of schools that had hired new presidents privately.

“In Oregon, Oregon State University hired a president in secret it turned out that he had sexual misconduct and abuse charges in his past. Auburn University had a president who it was discovered had crashed the plane of his prior employer while on a non-work related trip. The cost to replace him—over $4.5 million,” Farmer says.

Farmer says if these presidential searches had been open to the public, some of this information about the candidates might have come out before they were hired.

“They say sunshine is the greatest disinfectant. These are the administrators, the presidents of our highest institutions. We give them so much of our public dollars. They should be hired in the open. They should be hired in sunshine. We should not put this process in secret,“ Farmer says

Sen. Jeff Brandes (R-St. Petersburg), who carried the bill in the Senate, says his measure would have created a balance that would have let universities attract more candidates, while still allowing for public scrutiny.

"If you're looking for transparency, why not have a cooling off period? Why not have a 21-day review? If you're looking for diversity, why not have the broadest pool of applicants you can possibly get? That's what this bill does," Brandes says.

Brandes argues the current process obscures candidates more than his measure would have. He says under the current system, the public is left to sift through the names of hundreds of people who applied for the position. He says once that list is narrowed to a group of final candidates, decisions are often made so quickly, the public doesn’t have time to respond. Brandes says his bill would have fixed that by shielding the names of the initial group of applicants, but making the identities of the finalists for the positions public. And then requiring a 21 day wait between making that list public and holding any meetings during which interviews or final action would take place.

While the bill has failed, some are wondering if there's a chance for it to move forward this session. Farmer said on Twitter that he’s heard lawmakers are pushing for a motion to reconsider the measure.

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