2 college leadership searches in Florida struggle to recruit candidates

Just eight candidates applied this summer to lead the State University System of Florida, and few of them had extensive experience working at a university in the United States.

The system’s board of governors chose state senator Ray Rodrigues, a Republican who worked for a state university. Rodrigues is also a close ally of Gov. Ron DeSantis, another Republican, who has been a harsh critic of higher education in the state.

Meanwhile, at Florida International University, some 70 people applied to be the next president of the institution. But the top three candidates chosen by the search committee dropped out, according to the Miami Heraldand the only runner-up is the interim president – ​​who hadn’t even applied for the job and had previously said he wasn’t interested.

For some observers, these results indicate that the political climate of the state deters candidates for the head of public universities. Three other such universities are also seeking new presidents: Florida Atlantic University, Florida Gulf Coast University and University of Florida.

“It would be naïve not to consider high-profile state political climates a major factor in potential candidates’ reluctance to apply,” said Felecia Commodore, associate professor of educational foundations and leadership at Old Dominion University. . “Florida has had a lot of press lately regarding what some would call an overbearing approach to governance by the state’s executive branch over its public institutions,” Commodore said. A the Chronicle this year’s analysis called it the “red state disadvantage”.

Florida has had a lot of press lately regarding what some would call an overbearing approach to governance by the state’s executive branch over its public institutions.

Among the problems Florida’s public colleges have faced under DeSantis are new laws that require them to: investigate on campus matters of “intellectual freedom”; restrict teaching about issues of race, racism and gender; enshrine a stricter post-employment review system; requiring faculty members to post their entire course syllabus online before the start of each semester; and changing accreditors over the next decade.

Florida has also made national headlines over academic freedom controversies. Last year, the University of Florida barred several professors from serving as expert witnesses in suffrage lawsuits against the state. A recent the Chronicle the investigation found that the university’s original decision in the case, reversed after a week of bad publicity, stemmed not from top-down orders from Tallahassee but from the campus’ own bureaucracy.

Commodore said there could be many other reasons besides politics that caused potential applicants to drop out or avoid applying in the first place, including “institutional reputation or history, degree of current examination of university presidents, a perception of bias towards a candidate intern, and the stress of post-Covid-19 work.

Whatever the reason, she said, boards should be concerned if they don’t receive a diverse pool of highly qualified candidates.

Deanne Butchey, a teaching professor at Florida International University’s College of Business, cited another Florida law that likely led many high-profile candidates to withdraw from that institution’s presidential search: The new measure now allows colleges public to keep the names of the candidates secret until 21 days before a finalist is named.

Previously, the public would have known the names of all presidential candidates throughout the hiring process.

None of the top three candidates wanted their name made public unless they were the sole runner-up because they were also up for other positions, said Butchey, president of Florida International’s faculty senate and member of the search committee for the new president. .. After these candidates were dropped, the search committee approached the acting president, Kenneth A. Jesselwho has served as the university’s financial director since 2009.

Although the top candidates identified by the search committee are all “superstars,” Butchey said, Jessell is an ideal choice because he understands the university and the community it serves.

Another candidate would have had to adapt and learn the complexities of working in South Florida, she said. “Someone who comes in with a national perspective,” she said, “will not understand the complexity of our diverse community.”

A candidate from outside Florida would also have to “circle the political environment that we find ourselves in,” Butchey said, “and those connections take a long time to build.”

Denise W. Whigham