By: Jennifer Proffitt
Florida’s strong and cherished open government laws attempt to insure that the people’s business is conducted in the sunshine–under the public’s watchful eye. This is necessary so that Floridians can make informed decisions and participate fully in democratic processes. Public access to information, accountability, and oversight are essential to counter the very real possibility of corruption and undue influence that can be wielded behind closed doors. SB 182/HB 223 attempts to shut the people out of the decision-making regarding executive searches for public higher education institutions, an exemption that will be detrimental to our colleges and universities, faculty, staff, parents, students and taxpayers.
This exemption, if passed, would exclude searches for new presidents, provosts, and deans at public universities and colleges from public record and meeting requirements until the finalists are named. The bill sponsors and proponents suggest that this is necessary for more and better qualified candidates to apply for these positions without the fear of their home institutions finding out that they are searching for another position. This is demonstrably false in that recent presidential searches in Florida have shown that well-qualified people do apply and have been selected, illustrating that this is not a compelling reason to keep the public in the dark about who is applying for these positions and how the finalists are determined. The public has a right to know who will be leading—and who won’t be leading—our public institutions because these are highly paid, powerful positions that affect either directly or indirectly all Floridians.
We don’t have to look any further than the four recent university presidential searches, University of Florida, Florida State University, Florida A&M University, and Florida Atlantic University, all conducted in the Sunshine, to see that excellent candidates do apply. For example, provosts and vice presidents from Ivy League, top 25, and peer institutions, a sitting president and an interim president, and the chancellor of the Colorado State University System who served as the president at peer universities all applied for these positions. That’s not to mention all of the excellent presidents, provosts, and deans who have led our institutions of higher learning over the years and who were hired in the sunshine.
To keep any part of these searches secret violates the public interest, as the people of the state of Florida—especially students and their parents—deserve the right to know how their tax dollars are being spent and how major decisions that affect these public institutions are made. It is also essential if we are to hold leadership accountable. Faculty should also have a say in these matters, as shared governance is one of the cornerstones of the Academy. That is, as critical members of institutions dedicated to knowledge, critique, and fostering understanding, faculty should play a direct role in choosing the administration of the institution and developing policies related to academics. It is imperative for the future of our universities and colleges for faculty to be involved at all levels of the hiring process for the principal administrators at our institutions so that, once chosen by the Board of Trustees, we can all work together to benefit our students and ultimately the people of Florida.
And as also demonstrated by the recent presidential searches, not knowing why the finalists for a presidential position were chosen over the others is a secret that universities and colleges cannot afford and should avoid. As Barbara Petersen, President of the First Amendment Foundation, stated, “Who applies for positions within the college system or a state university, their qualifications and accomplishments, who is selected and who is not, is vitally important public information. To shield the selection process from public oversight and accountability is, we believe, bad public policy.” I couldn’t agree more.
–Dr. Jennifer Proffitt, Associate Professor in Communication and President of the Florida State University chapter of the United Faculty of Florida