Florida Atlantic University's first student-run news source.


Florida Atlantic University's first student-run news source.


Florida Atlantic University's first student-run news source.


Connecting the dots: Breaking down FAU’s suspended presidential search

From the formation of the search committee to the questionnaire referenced in SUS Chancellor Ray Rodrigues’ letter to BOT Chair Brad Levine, take a dive into the details of the suspension.
Exterior of the Schmidt Family Complex. Courtesy of HKS Architects

Editor’s Note: This story has been updated with a statement from AGB Managing Principal Rod McDavis.

FAU began looking for its next president in January when former president John Kelly stepped down in December 2022. On July 7, Board of Trustees (BOT) Chair Brad Levine agreed to suspend the search after State University System of Florida Board of Governors (BOG) Chancellor Ray Rodrigues requested a pause.

The BOT formed the Presidential Search Committee and recruited search firm AGB Search to help identify qualified candidates. After the BOT announced the three finalists for the position, Rodrigues cited issues with the search firm and search committee’s practices. Levine agreed and FAU subsequently canceled the scheduled listening sessions for the finalists.

Rodrigues was appointed to his position by the Florida Board of Governors, a 17-member board with 14 members appointed by the governor. The BOT is comprised of 13 members, six of whom are appointed by the governor, five by the BOG, as well as the president of the Faculty Senate and the student body president.

Many expected Florida Rep. Randy Fine to be among the list of finalists, as Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis had recommended him for the position at the end of March, but he was not named in the announcement. Given that Levine suspended the search within 24 hours of this development, numerous FAU community members and off-campus experts have expressed concern about possible political infringement.

Members of the FAU Presidential Search Committee did not respond to requests for comment. Neither did finalists Sean Buck, Jose Sartarelli, or Michael Hartline.

The Search Committee

According to Rothe, the committee members signed a nondisclosure agreement (NDA), which is typified by a 2022 Florida statute that exempts public records with information about the applicants as well as public meetings until the search is over.

“[Speaking to the press] would have been breaking state law. I mean, that was a really contentious law that just passed,” said Faculty Union Vice President Christopher Robé regarding the statute.  

FAU Communication and Multimedia Studies professor Aaron Veenstra, however, says the actual text of the bill does not necessarily warrant an NDA.

“When they exempted all the presidential search stuff from the Sunshine laws, they didn’t just say that this material was exempt, but they said that the material would be confidential. So that’s in the actual language of the law,” said Veenstra. “That, to me at least, doesn’t read like you have an NDA, like you can’t talk about this at all, but it does mean that the records themselves would be confidential.”

Dick Schmidt, the university’s biggest donor and a member of the Presidential Search Committee, said in a Sun Sentinel op-ed that he felt “personally outraged and slandered by the implications of the chancellor’s letter.”

Tyler Branson, an English professor at the University of Cincinnati, has served on multiple academic search committees. He feels that leadership teams involved in the search should provide the community with regular updates.

“It’s a fine line between being able to discuss an ongoing search and then providing the campus community updates and transparency about what’s going on,” he said. “And I think you can do both of those, right? You can maintain confidentiality and follow the law, but you can also be transparent and open and honest with the community and I think that’s what a good leadership team should be able to do effectively.”

The American Association of University Professors (AAUP), which aims to strengthen academic freedom and higher education governance, holds that the BOT and faculty should work together to find the president and that if a search firm is involved, there needs to be transparency, said AAUP Senior Program Officer Anita Levy.

“In other events where we’ve seen similar kinds of searches go awry, we’ve said this is an infringement of standards of academic government,” said Levy.

The Search Firm

Enlisting the help of search firms is a common practice for institutions to fill higher-level positions such as presidents, provosts, and deans, according to Amanda Rutherford, Indiana University professor and political scientist.

Amanda Rutherford is a professor at Indiana University Bloomington. Courtesy of Rutherford.

“Generally, the university and search firm sign a contract—a memorandum of understanding (MOU)—of what the firm will do to support the university search committee and/or governing board.  In many cases, the search firm works to identify and attract qualified candidates to apply for an open position. That does not mean that all stakeholder groups favor the use of search firms,” Rutherford wrote in a statement to the UP.

Rutherford is currently researching the political environment and leadership in higher education institutions and says one of the biggest concerns with search firms is that they favor confidentiality while students favor transparency.

“There are valid arguments on both sides. Confidentiality can encourage highly competitive candidates to apply without the threat of negative repercussions with their current employer.  Transparency, on the other hand, is particularly important at public institutions where taxpayer dollars support some portion of the university, and stakeholder groups have credible claims for voicing their support or lack thereof for particular candidates,” she wrote.

The Survey

Rodrigues sent his first letter to the BOT on July 7, citing issues with AGB Search’s recruitment tactics. According to Rodrigues, AGB Search sent out a survey to the candidates asking them to divulge information about their sexual orientation and gender, which he called an “anomaly.” 

Rodrigues did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

On July 13, AGB Search’s Managing Principal and CEO Rod McDavis released a statement on the firm’s website in response to Rodrigues’ claims, stating that the survey was a voluntary and routine part of executive searches, and the search committee did not receive any of the data AGB obtained from it.

“Its purpose is to ensure that our efforts continue to attract qualified candidates from all walks of life for our clients. The collected data has no impact on candidacy,” the statement reads. 

AGB Marketing and Public Relations Specialist Andrea Hansen also sent the UP the statement from McDavis regarding the questionnaire:

“The firm will continue using its voluntary demographic questionnaire as well as its other practices and procedures when it assists other colleges and universities across the country with their presidential searches in the future.”

Branson says that while academic searches and executive searches are different in position levels, universities will generally have a voluntary ‘self-identification’ section on the application for Human Resources. 

“To call that an anomaly is strange,” he said. “That doesn’t seem like an anomaly to me. Now, if the search committee had direct access to those surveys then that would be a problem.”

Many corporate businesses utilize questionnaires much like the one AGB Search conducted to gather general demographic information about their employees to ensure staff diversity. Usually, the questionnaires ask for the applicant’s age, gender, military status, marital status, ethnicity, and citizenship, which FAU Faculty Union President Dawn Rothe says are common survey questions.

“Even more so, the search firm used the exact same survey in other recent searches and it was never a problem. So drawing on that one further solidifies the political nature along with the timing of the presidential search suspension,” said Rothe.

Bill Trapani, FAU School of Interdisciplinary Studies director, says the applicants would have taken the diversity survey in mid-May.

“So one wonders why they only waited until the candidates were announced to raise questions about the diversity survey two months later,” he said.

Elisabeth Gaffney is the Managing Editor for the University Press. For more information on this article or others, you can reach Elisabeth at [email protected] or DM her on Instagram @elisabethgaff.

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About the Contributor
Elisabeth Gaffney
Elisabeth Gaffney, Editor-at-Large
Elisabeth is a senior majoring in multimedia journalism and double minoring in linguistics and sociology. She is a creative, kitten and coffee-loving workaholic with a love for the performing arts and storytelling. She hopes to one day work as a reporter at an established newspaper. In summer 2024, she is interning with The 11th Hour with Stephanie Ruhle at MSNBC in New York City.

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