A method used by a Florida Atlantic University search committee to narrow candidates for its next president violates the state’s Sunshine Law, state Attorney General Ashley Moody has determined.
Moody’s opinion, issued Monday, is expected to further delay FAU’s search for a new president and may force the entire presidential search process to start again, legal and Sunshine experts told the South Florida Sun Sentinel.
The state’s Sunshine Law governs which meetings and records must be open to the public as well as what records must be kept for meetings held behind closed doors.
“It would be very problematic if anyone acts on the recommendations of the search committee,” said Michael Barfield, who works on open government and Sunshine issues for the Florida Center for Government Accountability. “In fact, it would be illegal according to the Attorney General’s opinion.”
Neither an FAU spokesman nor Brad Levine, chairman of the Board of Trustees, provided comment Tuesday afternoon.
The Board of Governors for the State University System, which must confirm the presidential candidate FAU selects, halted the search July 7 over what state Chancellor Ray Rodrigues described as “anomalies.”
The Board of Governors asked Moody on Sept. 8 to weigh in on one of FAU’s actions, without ever naming the university in its request. The board said it was seeking guidance as it updates its policies on presidential searches.
The issue involved 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.
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,” Moody wrote in her opinion, dated Monday.
“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.
“While an exemption is available for portions of certain meetings of the search committee, this exemption applies only when the committee fulfills all criteria of the exemption, such as recording the entire portion of the exempt meeting,” Moody wrote.
Sunshine Law violations are generally corrected by holding the improper meeting again. In this case, that also would mean redoing subsequent meetings as well, Will Spicola, a Tallahassee attorney who specializes in constitutional law, told the Sun Sentinel.
But the FAU search committee was disbanded after three finalists were named in early July, committee members say. That likely means starting the entire search again, Spicola said.
“I think that’s the only option,” he said.
Moody’s opinion is expected to be part of an investigation being conducted by Julie Leftheris, inspector general for the Board of Governors. Rodrigues is scheduled to provide an update on the investigation at a Nov. 9meeting.
“The inspector general is conducting a thorough investigation. It is our policy not to comment on such investigations,” said Tony Lee, a spokesman for the Board of Governors.
The FAU search committee had chosen three candidates: 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; and Jose Sartarelli, former chancellor of the University of North Carolina Wilmington.
Not selected was State Rep. Randy Fine, R- Palm Bay, whom Gov. Ron DeSantis’ office had endorsed for the job in late May. Some Democrat lawmakers, as well as FAU faculty and donors, argued that the Board of Governors stopped the search because Fine didn’t get the job.
Since then, Fine and DeSantis have been involved in a feud after Fine accused the governor of being too weak on antisemitism in the wake of the Oct. 7 Hamas attack on Israel.
Reached by text Thursday, Fine expressed doubts he would apply again if the search is reopened.
“I only applied the first time because the Governor’s team recruited me and promised a smooth and fast confirmation,” he said. “This time, I would not expect the former; I would not believe the latter.”
The FAU Faculty Senate has been pushing 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.
“She has support across the institution and in the larger community, both because of her longstanding service as well as her dedication and the thought and care she puts into the role,” said Bill Trapani, a communications professor at FAU.
“I think when the faculty endorsed an extension of Dr. Volnick’s interim contract, it was with the notion we need to restore some stability sooner rather than later,” he said.