FAU Required to Redo Presidential Search

TALLAHASSEE — The state university system’s Board of Governors on Thursday required Florida Atlantic University to restart its search for a president, as the board plans to revamp rules about schools’ searches for leaders.

Restarting the FAU search means the school will be under an interim leader potentially well into next year, as search processes typically take months — and FAU won’t be able to relaunch a search until at least late January.

Former FAU President John Kelly announced his retirement in summer 2022, and the Board of Governors in November 2022 approved Interim President Stacy Volnick to lead the school. Last month, Volnick’s contract as interim president was extended through the end of 2024, or until the school hires a new president.

The FAU president search was put on hold in July at the direction of state university system Chancellor Ray Rodrigues, who alleged that aspects of the search violated Florida law.

On Thursday, Board of Governors member Alan Levine, who also served on the FAU Presidential Search Committee, characterized the process as flawed and supported rebooting it despite the initial search yielding three finalists.

“I don’t impugn the motives of anybody that was on that search committee. But the reality is that the process didn’t work right. And even if it produced good candidates, that could be fruit from a poison tree. And it’s not something that we should ever entertain,” Levine said.

Rodrigues in July also ordered the Board of Governors’ inspector general to investigate the search process, which led to a lengthy report detailing four main parts of FAU’s search that officials said were improper. Those parts were the use of an anonymous survey to rank candidates, questionnaires that asked candidates about their sexuality, “withholding” of certain information to the search committee and questions about whether the search complied with Board of Governors rules.

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The investigation spanned from July to November and involved reviewing more than 5,000 emails and 500 documents, conducting 29 interviews and analyzing 34 hours of meeting footage, according to board officials.

Inspector General Julie Leftheris presented a report about the findings Thursday to the board. Leftheris focused, in part, on the anonymous survey conducted by a firm hired by FAU to assist with the search. The survey was distributed to members of the school’s Presidential Search Committee so that they could rank their preferred candidates. The decision to perform the survey was backed by Brad Levine, chairman of both the FAU Board of Trustees and the FAU search committee, according to the report.

Some higher-education officials and state Attorney General Ashley Moody have argued such anonymous surveys violate Florida’s Sunshine Law on open government.

“The university’s search firm, AGB Search, strayed from their normal practice and designed the survey to be anonymous. Chair (Brad) Levine was aware the survey would be anonymous and supported the process,” Leftheris said.

As part of Thursday’s decisions, members of the Board of Governors will consider changing rules about universities’ presidential search and selection processes. Board of Governors Chairman Brian Lamb said rules could stand to be “more granular” in guidance to schools.

As part of the potential changes, board members discussed possibly barring chairs of university trustee boards from also serving as chairs of presidential search committees — meaning Brad Levine would not be able to lead the FAU search committee after it restarts work.

The potential changes are expected to be considered during a Jan. 24 Board of Governors meeting. Members of the board on Thursday decided to delay allowing FAU to restart its search until the rules are updated.

Brad Levine was involved in other aspects of the FAU search that the investigative report deemed improper. For example, the report said that AGB Search “communicated about search-related business primarily with Chair Brad Levine, who had final authority over what was provided to the committee.”

“However, information provided to Chair Brad Levine was not always shared with the Presidential Search Committee as a whole,” the report said.

Brad Levine, who was present for Thursday’s online meeting, did not make any comments in response to the report.

Meanwhile, Alan Levine responded to heavy speculation that the FAU search was derailed because state Rep. Randy Fine, R-Brevard County, was not named as a finalist.

“A lot of public things were said, a lot of editorials were written, a lot of news articles contained fact errors that this process was paused because a certain candidate didn’t get the job. That just simply doesn’t bear out to be the truth. The law was broken, the Sunshine Law was violated,” Alan Levine said.

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