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Politics / Issues

Jeff Brandes on USF presidents, and keeping presidential searches confidential

Jeff Brandes.png
News Service of Florida
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St. Petersburg Sen. Jeff Brandes

Outgoing state Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-Pinellas County, talks about his bill that recently passed in the Senate that would allow applicants for university president to keep their names confidential. And his expectations for a new University of South Florida president.

The University of South Florida is in the midst of a search for a new president. One of the issues whoever they choose will have to face is the continuing fallout from the 2020 consolidation of the university, which has taken away some of the independence of the branch campuses in St. Petersburg and Sarasota-Manatee.

One of the forces behind the consolidation bill was state Sen. Jeff Brandes. The St. Petersburg Republican will soon leave office because of term limits.

Brandes discussed what he would like to see in a new USF president, as well as a bill that recently passed in the Senate that would allow applicants for university president to keep their names confidential.

The university trustees are now appointed by the governor, and the Board of Governors are appointed by the governor. What's to stop pressure from the governor to get someone like a political ally on the list of finalists without really knowing what other perhaps better-qualified candidates they beat out could be out there?

I think you have to understand that what the process is today to understand why it was so broken and why we needed to move it forward and fix it. Today, what happens is, after the search committee is selected, the first decision they make is which head-hunting firm are we going to hire. And what the headhunters have started to do in Florida is to verbally reach out to their prospective candidates. And what they're telling the candidates is, we won't even ask you to apply, unless you're going to be named a finalist.

"What they're doing is they're only receiving the applications of the people who are ultimately going to be finalists, because they don't want to have to disclose to everybody else and put their current employment at risk that they applied but weren't considered a finalist."
-State Sen. Jeff Brandes

And so what they're doing is they're only receiving the applications of the people who are ultimately going to be finalists, because they don't want to have to disclose to everybody else and put their current employment at risk that they applied but weren't considered a finalist. So that potentially puts a ding against them in their current position.

What we're looking to do is get the broadest pool of candidates we can possibly get, let the search committees actually do their job — which is to sift through the candidates and not have to rely on a headhunter to sift through the candidates for them, where the search committee is essentially left in the dark on purpose, because they're not going to get a broad pool of candidates who are just going to submit their names and tell their current employers, 'hey, I'm looking for another gig.'

What kind of qualities would you like to see in the next University of South Florida president? And would they have to come from an academic background?

No, I don't think so. I mean, I think you could find somebody for the academic background. But I think you could find somebody who's run a company or been a professional. I want somebody with a strong vision for what that university can be, who is in tune with the growing and changing nature of future technologies — but who recognizes the important role that the university has in funding some of the core functions of our local region as well, and really is going to build off of the clusters and the opportunities that the Tampa Bay market offers.

You wouldn't rule out somebody with a purely political background from being president of a university like USF?

No, because look, John Thrasher was a great president for Florida State University. In fact, you know, many people have said he's one of the best presidents they've had in years. I totally agree. I think you want somebody with a strong vision with a passion for the university with a passion for the local community.

"I'm not going to pigeonhole myself and say it has to be somebody with an academic background. I want the best candidate, period. I don't care where they come from."
- State Sen. Jeff Brandes

And I'm not going to pigeonhole myself and say it has to be somebody with an academic background. I want the best candidate, period. I don't care where they come from. I want the best candidate for the job. That's going to be able to cast a bold vision, inspire your deans and your students to think bigger, and he's going to go create the best university in the state of Florida.

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