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FAU faculty, top donor outraged by suspension of presidential search

Rep. Randy Fine, R-South Brevard County, during a special session, Wednesday, May 19, 2021, in Tallahassee, Fla. (AP Photo/Steve Cannon)
Steve Cannon/AP
FR127919 AP
Rep. Randy Fine, R-South Brevard County, during a special session, Wednesday, May 19, 2021, in Tallahassee, Fla. (AP Photo/Steve Cannon)

Florida Atlantic University faculty members and supporters are calling foul over the school’s decision to suspend its presidential search at the request of state officials. The complaints from the state came after an ally of Gov. Ron DeSantis — Republican State Rep. Randy Fine — was not named as one of the three finalists for the job.

When FAU announced the top contenders for the university’s top job on July 5, communications professor William Trapani says he was relieved to see who wasn’t on the list.

“We've been hearing the name of Randy Fine and been very worried,” Trapani said. “To get to the point where we had a public announcement of candidates and he was not involved in that list … we were all breathing a sigh of relief.”

READ MORE: Anxiety among professors as DeSantis pushes 'conservative firebrand' for FAU president

But two days later, the search was halted, after state officials raised concerns.

“I think what really shocked so many of us is for this to happen after the announcement, and, frankly, for what seemed like very thin pretenses,” he said.

It’s not publicly known whether Fine actually applied for the job, because of a recently-passed state law making university presidential searches largely confidential. But a state representative was among the field of 19 “highly qualified” candidates, according to the school.

Fine did not respond to a request for comment.

Path forward unclear for FAU’s finalists

It’s not clear what may come next for the three finalists, who collectively have spent their careers in higher education and public service.

The finalists announced before the search was suspended are:

  • Sean Buck, Superintendent of the U.S. Naval Academy
  • Michael Hartline, Dean of the College of Business at Florida State University
  • Jose Sartarelli, former Chancellor of the University of North Carolina Wilmington

Based on their CVs and application materials alone, Trapani said the three finalists seemed “eminently qualified” for the position of leading the public university and its more than 30,000 students.

Buck told WLRN that while he remains “very, very proud” to be a candidate and is looking forward to the process continuing, he hasn’t been told what the way forward may be.

Sartarelli declined to answer questions from WLRN. Hartline did not respond to a request for comment.

Some professors worry the disruption may scare off the finalists, who may well be candidates for other high profile positions elsewhere.

“Who among the candidates will want the job now that the [Florida Board of Governors] has shown how political and controlling it can be, once again?” reads a message from the Executive Committee of FAU’s United Faculty of Florida union chapter.

Florida Atlantic University
Alex Dolce
Florida Atlantic University
Florida Atlantic University

FAU calls off the search under pressure from the state

Days before the three finalists were slated to visit campus for a round of day-long public forums, the chancellor of the State University System of Florida, Ray Rodrigues, urged FAU to halt the process, alleging there were “anomalies” in the search.

Rodrigues took issue with two things:

  • a survey of the candidates’ demographics that was issued by the school’s search firm AGB Search
  • a straw poll that the presidential search committee allegedly took to winnow the field of candidates

Rodrigues, in a letter to the chair of the FAU Board of Trustees Brad Levine, called the questions about candidates’ diversity “wholly irrelevant, inappropriate, and potentially illegal."

The search firm defended the questionnaire, saying it’s “entirely voluntary."

“It’s for AGB Search’s benefit to ensure that our efforts continue to attract qualified candidates from all walks of life for our clients. The collected data has no impact on candidacy,” said Rod McDavis, Managing Principal and CEO of the firm. “AGB Search is working very closely with FAU to answer any outstanding questions so the search process can resume in a timely manner.”

The brief questionnaire was delivered via SurveyMonkey and was meant to help “meet reporting responsibilities to our client," according to documents that Trapani shared with WLRN. He applied for the position and described the survey as cursory and unremarkable.

“For that survey to be a reason why three otherwise qualified candidates would be either put on hold or likely the search will fail … it is just kind of beyond the pale. And frankly raises real questions about political interference,” Trapani said.

READ MORE: FAU names 3 finalists for president's job. Randy Fine isn't among them

As far as the straw poll, Rodrigues claimed that search committee members submitted their rankings “confidentially and directly to the search firm." That may have violated state law, he argued, which requires such meetings to be held behind closed doors but on the record, with a “complete recording” made of the proceedings.

“It seems like the state is hanging its hat on the idea that they deserve to know who voted and how,” Trapani said.

State officials have not made public any concerns about previous presidential searches and appointments, which have resulted in Republican politicians and allies of the governor taking the top jobs.

Top donor calls the suspension ‘outrageous’

FAU officials and boosters have been defending the search process, which they say produced a slate of highly qualified candidates, including 12 current or former university or system presidents, eight executive vice presidents, five provosts, and several vice presidents and deans.

A member of the presidential search committee and one of the school’s top donors, Dick Schmidt, blasted the decision to suspend the search, saying he felt “personally outraged and slandered” by the claims in Rodrigues’ letter.

“The intersection of politics and academia is at the same time both fragile and dangerous. This has never been more clear than this past week, when it appears that political influence may have pressured the State University System Board of Governors to halt the search process for the next president of Florida Atlantic University,” Schmidt wrote in a scathing editorial published in the South Florida Sun Sentinel.

Whatever happens with the search, Trapani says lasting damage has been done, at a time when universities across the state are struggling to recruit talent due to concerns about political interference in academia.

“The way that the state has gone about this has not only damaged the interests of Florida Atlantic University, but frankly, it's damaged the state university system,” Trapani said. “And I think someone needs to be accountable for that.”

Copyright 2023 WLRN 91.3 FM. To see more, visit WLRN 91.3 FM.

Kate Payne is an Iowa City-based reporter for Iowa Public Radio. Before she came to the Hawkeye State she was a reporter and fill-in host for WFSU, the NPR member station in Tallahassee, Florida. Kate has won awards for her political and feature reporting and her sound editing.