FAU should redo presidential search due to problems, report says

Florida Atlantic University should start its long-stalled search for a new president over again due to a “failure to comply” with state laws and state university regulations, a report released Thursday states.

The report, drafted by the inspector general for the State University System’s Board of Governors, also questioned whether Brad Levine, chairman of the FAU Board of Trustees, should lead the new presidential search.

“The failure to comply with Florida Statutes and Board of Governors regulation raises questions regarding the competence of the search,” wrote Julie Leftheris, inspector general for the Board of Governors.

Members of the Board of Governors are scheduled to discuss the findings at a virtual meeting scheduled for 8 a.m. Dec. 14.

The release of the investigation comes five months after the Board of Governors — which sets policy for the state’s public universities and must confirm any presidential candidate FAU selects — abruptly halted the presidential search.

The FAU search committee chose three finalists on July 5: Vice Admiral Sean Buck, who recently retired as superintendent of the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis; Michael Hartline, dean of the College of Business at Florida State University in Tallahassee; and Jose Sartarelli, former chancellor of the University of North Carolina Wilmington.

On July 7, two days after the finalists were named, the Board of Governors halted the search due to what state Chancellor Ray Rodrigues described as “anomalies.”

Rodrigues questioned the search committee’s use of secret ballots in the first round of narrowing candidates as well as a search firm’s voluntary questionnaire that asked about applicants’ sexual orientation, gender identity and preferred pronouns.

The Board of Governors asked state Attorney General Ashley Moody to weigh in one of those issues.

Moody was asked whether the search committee was allowed to whittle down the list of 60 candidates to 20 by members privately telling a search firm who their top choices were.

In an Oct. 30 opinion, Moody said the state’s Sunshine Law doesn’t allow search committee members “to use a search firm to anonymously rank candidates to affect which candidates the committee will consider at a future meeting.

“It appears that the very purpose of the process you describe is to inject secrecy into the deliberative process,” Moody wrote.

Many discussions related to university presidential searches are required to be secret from the public under a 2022 law, including portions that reveal the names or identifying information of candidates who did not make it to the finalist stage.

However, these portions of the meeting still must be held “on the record” in the presence of other committee members, Moody wrote.

Some Democrat lawmakers, as well as FAU faculty and donors, argued that the Board of Governors stopped the search and launched the investigation because State Rep. Randy Fine, R-Palm Beach, wasn’t one of the finalists. Gov. Ron DeSantis’ office had endorsed Fine for the job in late May.

Fine and DeSantis later had a fallout related to the governor’s response to the Oct. 7 Hamas attack on Israel as well as Fine’s decision to flip his endorsement for U.S. president from DeSantis to Donald Trump. Fine told the South Florida Sun Sentinel in late October that DeSantis had assured him in the spring he would get the job.

“Their pitch was everybody wants you. The path has been cleared,” Fine told the Sun Sentinel at the time. “If you say yes, you’re going to waltz right in.”

The stalled search fueled anger among many faculty and donors and caused a rift between two DeSantis appointees on the Board of Trustees: Levine, who defended FAU’s search, and Vice Chairwoman Barbara Feingold, who agreed with the Board of Governors that the search was problematic.

Feingold, a Fine ally, said at an August meeting that she didn’t support any of the three finalists. She even suggested there was no guarantee on a $30 million pledge she made for a new college of dentistry, based on the outcome of the presidential search. “As far as a commitment that I made, yes I made that. It could happen,” she said at an Aug. 15 Board of Trustees meeting. “Nothing has been signed.”

A DeSantis ally also worked to derail the candidate of Vice Admiral Sean Buck, who was believed to be the favorite of the search committee.

Christopher Rufo, a right-wing culture warrior who was appointed by DeSantis to the board of trustees for New College of Florida in Sarasota, and helped steer a rightward shift of that school, attacked Buck on the social media site X in July. Rufo described the career officer as a woke military leader who pushed “radical” diversity, equity and inclusion efforts at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, where he recently retired as superintendent. Buck in July replied that the claims were false, while stating he still was a candidate for the job.

The FAU Faculty Senate, voicing concerns about the instability to the stalled search has created, has been pushing since September for another option: keeping Interim President Stacy Volnick on as permanent president. Volnick, who has been with FAU for more than 30 years, was not allowed to apply for the job as a condition of being named interim leader.

This is a developing story. Check back for more updates.

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