Florida lawmakers pass bill aimed at shielding information in higher ed searches

FILE - The Florida Historic Capitol Museum is viewed during a legislative session, Tuesday, Jan. 11, 2022, in Tallahassee, Fla. (AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack) (Phelan M. Ebenhack, Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – The University of Florida is beginning its search for a new president this month, and legislation heading to the governor’s desk could make it the first such search held behind closed doors since the late 1960s.

The formal investiture of Florida State University President Richard McCullough was Feb. 25. He came from Harvard University and may have been the last Florida university president to have gone through the open process.

On Friday, the Florida House passed a long-debated bill aimed at shielding information about applicants to become presidents of state colleges and universities, putting it in position to go to Gov. Ron DeSantis.

The House voted 86-26 to approve the measure (SB 520), easily surpassing a two-thirds vote that is legally required to pass public-records exemptions. The Senate passed the bill last month in a 28-11 vote.

The legislation would take university searches out of the public eye until finalists have been selected. At that point, there would be a 21-day public vetting before a selection could be made.

Lawmakers from both parties say the “sunshine” isn’t working.

“It absolutely has a chilling effect on the applicants that might apply,” said state Rep. Stan McClain, R-Ocala.

State Rep. Ramon Alexander, D-Tallahassee, said: “This is about expanding the applicant pool. If anybody is about diversity, it’s me. Hello.”

But opponents argue the openness isn’t killing the applicant pool.

“It does nothing but keep out the faint of heart. It does nothing but keep out the people who don’t have confidence they are going to make it to the final,” said state Rep. Joe Geller, D-Aventura.

For the last decade, this legislation has gotten more “yes” than “no” votes every time the Legislature has voted. But it has never gotten the two-thirds required -- until Friday -- to take something out of the public eye.

State Rep. Sam Garrison, R-Fleming Island, sponsored the House bill.

“It’s encouraging to see bills come back through time and gain momentum as it goes along. I think it speaks to good policy,” Garrison said.

The legislation would take effect as soon as it is signed by the governor -- which is likely to happen in time to impact the search for a new leader at UF.

The legislation would also apply to selecting a president at one of the 28 state colleges.

The News Service of Florida contributed to this report.

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