Bill aims to keep lid on names of college president candidates

Florida State University (Capitol News Service)

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – The names of everyone applying to be a university or state college president in Florida will no longer be public under legislation making its way through the Legislature.

The legislation, which has been filed for six years, cleared a hurdle by passing the Florida Senate’s education committee on a 6-to-4 vote along party lines Tuesday morning. It is now in the hands of the committee on government oversight and accountability.

Under the bill, only the names of applicants who become finalists for the top jobs at state universities and colleges would be made public.

But public records advocates, such as the Florida First Amendment Foundation, say that information doesn’t tell the public enough.

Some state lawmakers want to keep the names of people applying for university or state college presidencies out of the public record, at least at first. Their argument? That candidates don’t want their current employers to know they’ve applied for other jobs.

“What re really want is a broader pool of applicants,” said State Sen. Jeff Brandes, the bill’s Senate sponsor.

But opponents, including Florida State University faculty union president Matthew Lata, don’t agree with the arguments made by the bill’s backers. Lata said being considered for a new job actually represents a plus in the field of academia.

“Being recruited is part of what we do, and it’s a part of what cements our national reputation,” Lata said.

Pam Marsh, president of the Florida First Amendment Foundation, expressed concerns that if the bill becomes law, members of the public will have no way of knowing if politics influenced a candidate’s hiring or overshadowed a quality leader.

“So we won’t know if there was a lovely, diverse pool of applicants of women, of people of color,” Marsh said Tuesday. “We won’t have any of that information. We’ll only know about these last candidates.”

The legislation has never been able to get the two-thirds vote required to enact a new public records exemption.

“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” Lata said. “Let’s leave things the way they are because it’s been working.”

State Sen. Joe Gruters, who chairs the education committee, said the legislation doesn’t undermine current university leaders and could prove beneficial.

“I think we’ve been pretty lucky with our picks, so the other side works,” Gruters said. “However, I just think you are limiting the pool.”

Over the six years the bill has been introduced, it has passed both chambers on majority votes, but never by the two-thirds majority needed to impose new restrictions on Florida’s broad public records laws.

Under the legislation, only finalists’ names would become public at least 21 days before a vote, but critics say short lists could be just one candidate deep.