Florida partisanship threatens presidential searches

As leadership vacancies rise in factious state, lawmakers push measure that academics fear will add dangerous secrecy to process of filling them

January 28, 2022
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) and Florida Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran (L) attend a press conference to illustrate Florida political bias threatens presidential searches
Source: Getty

The threat of political interference in Florida’s higher education sector is reaching new dimensions with state lawmakers pushing a measure that could make presidential searches substantially more secretive.

The bill moving through the Republican-controlled legislature has provisions to exclude major portions of the process of hiring new university leaders – in areas that include names of candidates and records of meetings – from the state’s general requirements for public disclosure of governmental affairs.

“Essentially, it would allow everything to be done behind closed doors,” said Irene Mulvey, a professor of mathematics at Fairfield University who serves as president of the American Association of University Professors.

The issue of secrecy in presidential searches has long been controversial in higher education, with the value of faculty and community input balanced against widely recognised fears of deterring candidates who don’t want to jeopardise their current positions. The rising use of private search firms has heightened such anxieties.

But academic leaders are growing especially wary of the implications in Florida, where four of the 12 state universities now have presidential openings and where – with some connection to the vacancies – the Republican governor has been actively interfering in institutional and educational operations.

The most high-profile recent example of political intrusion has been the attempt widely attributed to the governor, Ron DeSantis, to block three University of Florida professors from testifying in court against his new state law restricting voting rights.

The professors won a federal court ruling in favour of their right to testify, but the president of the state’s flagship institution, Kent Fuchs, announced during the dispute that he would step down early next year.

The University of South Florida, the University of North Florida and Florida International University also are seeking new presidents.

Worries have been heightened by the experience last year when the name of Richard Corcoran, the current state education commissioner and former speaker of the Florida House of Representatives, suddenly appeared on the list of candidates late in the process of finding a new president for Florida State University, Professor Mulvey said.

Mr Corcoran, a conservative who has railed against efforts to teach racial equity in schools, was blocked from the job by FSU faculty. But, Professor Mulvey said of the pending legislative proposal on secrecy, “the faculty in Florida are rightly concerned about this law – and the fact that it would take effect immediately”.

The matter stands to become a significant political issue in the state. Nikki Fried, a leading challenger to Mr DeSantis in this year’s gubernatorial election, is among those warning against any attempt to push Mr Corcoran into the University of Florida presidency.

“It is absolutely necessary that the search for the university’s next president be fully ethical, transparent, and nonpartisan, free from all political influence,” Ms Fried, the Florida agriculture commissioner and the only Democrat now holding any statewide office, wrote in a letter to the university’s board of trustees.

Some secrecy in the early stages of a presidential search was reasonable but faculty should be involved throughout the process, Professor Mulvey said. The law under consideration by Florida lawmakers would keep secret even the names of finalists, until the last two or three weeks before a job offer is extended.


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