A legislative proposal that would provide a public records exemption for information about applicants seeking a state university or college presidential position advanced through its second Senate committee Wednesday morning.
St. Petersburg Republican Sen. Jeff Brandes sponsored the bill (SB 220). He presented it to the Senate Committee on Governmental Oversight and Accountability, where it passed in a 4-2 vote, splitting along party lines.
The bill would create a public records exemption for information about applicants to become university and college presidents, though information about finalists for the posts would be available. The goal of the bill is to encourage a broader pool of applicants who may have shied away from applying because of the public records law that could allow their current employer to access their application.
Dissenting Sen. Victor Torres, a Democrat, questioned Brandes about the bill, sharing concerns that it will create more secrecy — a common critique of the proposal’s opponents. Torres also expressed concern over the potential impact this could have on diversity in the search, hurting minority applicants.
He discussed the search in 2014 for a Florida State University President, a position ultimately given to former lawmaker John Thrasher.
“Everybody had their input, you know. Whether it was good or bad, at least they had input as who was going to be their next President,” he said.
Vice Chair Sen. Joe Gruters spoke in support of the bill, referencing his time as a member of the FSU Board of Trustees, saying it would encourage better applicants.
“Over and over again we were told that people were afraid to apply as a result of it being public,” he said. “We may be losing out on some of the best applicants. … I think this will continue to expand the opportunities for us to get the very best talent we possibly can get in these nationwide searches.”
Several people spoke in public comment against the bill as well, including members of the First Amendment Foundation and United Faculty of Florida.
Pamela Marsh, Executive Director of the First Amendment Foundation, took issue with the proposal not specifying a set number of finalists that institutions must consider in searches.
“I don’t believe there’s anything in this bill that eliminates the headhunting firms from continuing in this process. They do shroud the process in secrecy to some point, but to limit by state law the number of finalists to no number, so we could have just one finalist, really shrouds the whole process in even greater darkness,” Marsh said.
Marsh also said making applicants’ information secret until a finalist is determined would preclude the public from knowing “how diverse the pool of applicants really was,” exempting details like race, ethnicity and gender.
Matthew Lata, President of FSU’s chapter of the United Faculty of Florida, echoed concerns about private search firms, but he described an ongoing search at the university as “open.” FSU is in the process of replacing President John Thrasher, who has announced his retirement.
“At FSU right now we’re in the middle of a search, and so far it’s been open, we’ve been able to follow it, we’ve been able to have appropriate input, and that keeps us all on the same page,” Lata told the panel.
Karen Morian, President of the United Faculty of Florida, said she is concerned the measure “doesn’t protect a quality candidate from the sunshine, it merely protects the lesser candidates from the sunshine.”
“You have the contention that we would get better applicants if people were shielded from the sunshine. If someone’s not comfortable applying in the sunshine, are they going to be comfortable doing the university’s or college’s business in the sunshine, as required by law?” Morian asked.
Brandes defended the bill, saying it will enhance the applicant pool.
“It’s my contention, and frankly the other senators have carried this bill in the past, that we’re not getting the broadest pool of applicants to apply,” Brandes said. “Because individuals are hesitant to apply in Florida, because they know as soon as they do their (current) university is going to find out.”
Rep. Sam Garrison filed the House version of the bill, HB 997, which has yet to receive committee assignments.
Because the bill would create a public records exemption, it requires a two-thirds vote of each legislative chamber in order to become law.
Lawmakers have filed such proposals in the past, but have faced heavy opposition from open-government advocates. The House passed a version of the bill during the 2020 Session, but it did not clear the Senate.
This year’s Senate bill narrowly passed its first committee, the Senate Education Committee, in a 6-4 vote.
The News Service of Florida contributed to this post. Republished with permission.