TAMPA — The process for choosing the first president at Florida Polytechnic University could be one of the last such searches in the state university system conducted fully in the sunshine now that legislation is advancing in the state Capitol allowing schools to keep early candidate lists for top jobs secret.
Advocates say providing an exemption to Florida’s public-records laws is necessary to ensure that the best candidates aren’t deterred from applying here, perhaps putting their existing jobs in jeopardy as word gets out they are entertaining offers.
House sponsor Dave Kerner, a Democrat from Lake Worth, said 25 states now keep secret such information, including Penn State University, which just lured Florida State University President Eric Barron to the same position there.
“There’s a bit of irony in that Dr. Barron was selected in a state by a process closed from the sunshine,” Kerner said. “If we want to compete on a national level, this is a policy we ought to embrace.”
Florida Polytechnic, which is under construction at Interstate 4 and eastern Polk Parkway and will welcome its first students in August, recently launched its search for its first president.
A Poly spokeswoman said that because the university is engaged in its search, it would be inappropriate to comment on the proposed legislation. Poly officials responded to a public records request, releasing the names of 34 applicants.
The consultant hired by Poly to conduct the search, Dallas-based William Funk and Associates, is still taking names.
Under Florida’s Government in the Sunshine statutes, reiterated in the state constitution, any person has the right to inspect or copy any public record of the legislative, executive and judicial branches of government unless specifically exempted.
Kerner’s bill would provide such an exemption for candidates for president, provost or dean at any state university. It passed out of its first committee by a 10-1 vote last month.
Kerner cited a Florida State trustee who told a Tallahassee television reporter that candidates would be reluctant to apply for the FSU job because they would be afraid to lose their current job.
“What we’re seeing now is that those who are in the best position to understand how to attract the best candidates are coming out and saying we need to provide a certain amount of protection in the early part of the process. And as they move forward, the Sunshine Law will take effect,” he said.
Kerner’s bill provides that the names of any applicants who make up the “final group” of applicants must be released by the school no later than 21 days before the date of the meeting where a vote will be taken.
“There’s another side to this bill that brings a level of heightened disclosure through this process,” Kerner said. “This bill would actually bring more structure and more formality to the process.”
The First Amendment Foundation, a Tallahassee-based watchdog for Florida’s open records, objects to the exemption in Kerner’s bill.
“We put these people in tremendously important positions of public trust,” said Barbara Petersen, the foundation’s president. “They’re responsible for millions and millions of dollars. They’re responsible for educating our youth. We pay them hundreds of thousands of dollars. All of these are reasons for more sunshine, not less.”
She’s not swayed by the argument that the best candidates won’t apply in an open atmosphere.
“Let me ask you this,” Petersen said. “If I was the dean of the law school at the University of Iowa and I applied for a job as the dean at the University of Florida, and I’m doing a damn good job at Iowa — I just want to get out of the cold weather — is the University of Iowa going to fire me? No. More likely, Iowa is going to sweeten the pot and give me more money.
“They keep saying they’re not going to get the best and the brightest,” she said. Citing FSU’s last two respected leaders, she added, “Sandy D’Alemberte wasn’t among the best and the brightest? Eric Barron wasn’t? I don’t believe it.”
The legislation comes as executive searches at other universities have raised eyebrows. At the University of Florida, a member of the committee searching for a law school dean deleted emails from faculty members relating to the search.
At Florida A&M University, a search committee trimmed a list of 49 candidates to six finalists to interview in person; five of the six finalists had submitted applications just hours before the deadline.
On Wednesday, outgoing FSU President Barron apologized to trustees over how they found he was leaving to take the top job at Penn State. That school formally appointed Barron on Monday, and rumors about the pending decision began to circulate in Tallahassee on Friday.
Barron’s last day at FSU will be April 2.
No timetable was laid out for FSU’s search, but Allan Bense, chairman of the school’s Board of Trustees, said Wednesday an interim president’s tenure “may be 90 days, may be 180 days.”