FAU defends presidential search after state officials abruptly suspend process

The chair of Florida Atlantic University’s presidential search committee gave a detailed defense Monday to allegations of “anomalies” in the process as some students, faculty and even a major donor who serves on the committee blasted the state Board of Governors for what they view as political interference.

Brad Levine, who chairs both the FAU Board of Trustees and the presidential search committee, sent a four-page response to Ray Rodrigues, chancellor of the State University System, addressing concerns that a search firm sent applicants a diversity survey that asked about their sexual orientation and gender identity. Rodrigues also alleged the committee made some selections by a straw poll that may violate state law.

Some critics speculated that the state halted the search process because State Rep. Randy Fine, R-Palm Bay, who was backed by Gov. Ron DeSantis, was not among the finalists.

The committee instead selected Vice Admiral Sean Buck, superintendent of the U.S. Naval Academy; Michael Hartline, dean of the College of Business at Florida State University; and Jose Sartarelli, former Chancellor of the University of North Carolina Wilmington.

“I feel personally outraged and slandered by the implications of the chancellor’s letter on me and my colleagues, for what appears to be an attempt to unwind our successful, hard work and reopen a search for a candidate more to the liking of certain politicians,” FAU donor and committee member Dick Schmidt wrote in an opinion piece published Monday in the South Florida Sun Sentinel.

Dick Schmidt, whose family is one of Florida Atlantic University's largest donors, is a member of the FAU presidential selection committee.
Dick Schmidt, whose family is one of Florida Atlantic University’s largest donors, is a member of the FAU presidential selection committee.

Schmidt’s family has given more than $47 million to FAU, making it the university’s largest donor.

Several other search committee members contacted by the Sun Sentinel said they were advised to refer questions to the university’s media relations department.

Rodrigues on Friday afternoon asked FAU to suspend the search so that the university system’s Board of Governors could conduct an investigation, a decision he made after consulting with Brian Lamb, the board’s chairman. The FAU Board of Trustees is responsible for selecting a university president, but the Board of Governors must confirm that selection.

The university complied, cancelling a series of public forums that were scheduled to be held this week with the finalists. A final decision had been expected within a few weeks, but that could change due to the state-ordered delay.

“FAU is anxious to resume our search process,” Brad Levine wrote to Rodrigues. “Although we had to postpone the public forums that were scheduled for [Monday], we would like to resume the schedule that was set for later this week. We therefore respectfully ask that you authorize us to resume our process as soon as possible.”

Rodrigues would not comment Monday, Board of Governors spokeswoman Renee Fargason said.

“Chancellor Rodrigues’s letter speaks for itself,” Fargason said. “We do not comment on pending investigations. We will provide a statement once the investigation is concluded.”

One of Rodrigues’ concerns outlined in the letter was whether the search committee followed state law in its process to narrow candidates.

Under a state law passed last year, university presidential search committees are conducted in closed session. But the meetings must be recorded and “may not be held off the record,” Rodrigues said in Friday’s letter to Levine.

“Holding a straw poll, that is tantamount to a written vote that is not disclosed, may run afoul of this provision,” Rodrigues wrote.

In his response Monday, Levine argued the straw poll, which was held May 19 at the request of a committee member, does not violate state law. He described the straw poll as a tool used to expedite the conversation.

“Our consultant presented a summary overview of the applications received, highlighting a few of our nearly 60 applicants to that point that had especially relevant experience related to the university’s approved position criteria,” Levine wrote. “Following this overview, the committee members discussed their assessments of some of the candidates.”

That discussion lasted 30 minutes and more than half of the committee members made comments, Levine wrote.The committee agreed to send each committee member’s top eight candidates back to the consultant to tabulate and report back. This helped the committee reach consensus, Levine wrote.

“Our consultant confirmed that this was an industry-standard approach to facilitate efficient discussion of a large applicant pool,” Levine’s letter said.

The Board of Governors’ representative on the committee, Alan Levine, “enthusiastically agreed,” wrote Brad Levine, who is no relation. “He said he had seen the process done many times before and that it is actually a best practice.”

“This is exactly the right way to do it,” Allan Levine told the committee, according to Brad Levine’s letter.

Allan Levine’s “strong endorsement” was a major reason the straw poll was conducted, Brad Levine said.

The poll resulted in 20 names that received at least one vote from a committee member, Brad Levine wrote. The committee unanimously chose semifinalists to be interviewed.

The process was similar to one conducted by Florida State University in its recent presidential search, Brad Levine’s letter said. In that search, the search firm met with each committee member individually to gauge sentiments regarding the candidates and then reported that consensus back to the committee.

Brad Levine wrote that Alan Levine asked the general counsel for the Board of Governors whether the FSU process violated the state’s Sunshine Laws. The general counsel for the Board of Governors responded no.

Alan Levine voiced a different sentiment with the South Florida Sun Sentinel’s Editorial Board on Monday. He said he called for the FSU search to be suspended after a straw poll was used.

“I have a very public history about being concerned with secret votes,” Levine told the Sun Sentinel Editorial Board Monday.

Reached Monday night about Brad Levine’s letter, Alan Levine said “I read it. I think it’s best for the Chancellor’s review to be conducted.”

Brad Levine also addressed Rodrigues’s other major concern about the demographic survey, which asked questions related to sexual orientation and gender identity such as whether a candidate was “male or transgender male.”

“These inquiries are wholly irrelevant, inappropriate and potentially illegal,” Rodrigues wrote.

Levine said the search committee was not aware the survey. Had the committee known, “we would have reviewed their questions to ensure their appropriateness in Florida.”

However, he said the university’s search firm, AGB Search, told him such surveys are standard practice and were used in recent presidential searches at the University of Florida, FSU, the University of South Florida and the University of North Florida.

“AGB Search has advised FAU that AGB Search administers the questionnaire completely anonymously and voluntarily, has no way to track who responds to the survey, does not know which applicants respond and which do not, and that there is no way that AGB Search can associate any submitted responses with any individual applicant,” Brad Levine wrote.

Levine said the responses are used for the search firm’s own internal use to measure how well it’s attracting a diverse candidate pool.

“In sum, FAU never requested or received the anonymous questionnaire responses, and thus they played no role in the search committee’s selection of the semifinalists and finalists,” Levine wrote.

On Monday, FAU’s faculty union, United Faculty of Florida, sent out a “call to action,” asking members to contact the Board of Governors, which oversees the State University System.

“Because of anonymous and unsubstantiated claims,” Rodrigues “inserted himself into a process that was, up until now, professional, fair, transparent, and collaborative,” the union’s email said. “The Board’s decision to suspend the search smacks of political meddling and sour grapes.”

Students are also alarmed that the process was halted, said Raymond Adderly, a sophomore and member of the FAU student House of Representatives.

“There was a lot of student pushback when Randy Fine was put into the mix of that group and that was one that students vehemently opposed and so for the university to not take that action let us know they took our concerns seriously,” Adderly said.

Fine is a self-described “conservative firebrand” who has pledged to battle “wokeism across our state.”  This year, he helped draft a law that targets drag shows by threatening to “fine, suspend, or revoke the license” of any business that admits a child to an “adult live performance.” A federal judge has blocked that law from taking effect.

Fined, reached by text Monday, wrote, “I don’t speak to the Sentinel.”

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