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.


‘Politics over process’: The political side of FAU’s presidential search

Multiple FAU faculty and off-campus experts believe higher education institutions are being impacted by politics, especially in Florida.
Top: Governor Ron DeSantis, FAU Board of Trustees Chair Brad Levine. Bottom: State University System of Florida Chancellor Ray Rodrigues, Florida State Rep. Randy Fine.

Many experts are scrutinizing Florida Atlantic University’s presidential search and finding politics to be heavily intertwined with higher education — a state of affairs that could have a lasting impact on the university. 

On July 5, State University System of Florida Chancellor Ray Rodrigues sent a written request to FAU Board of Trustees (BOT) Chair Brad Levine to suspend the search indefinitely due to what he felt were inconsistencies with Florida law, to which Levine subsequently agreed.

Official headshot of State University System (SUS) of Florida Chancellor Ray Rodrigues. Photo courtesy of SUS media kit.

This set of incidents occurred within 48 hours of FAU announcing the three finalists for the position in July. Republican Florida State Rep. Randy Fine, whose district includes southern Brevard County, was not listed. The governor’s communications director said Fine would be a “good candidate” for the presidency.

Fine revealed to The Florida Standard, a political blog, that DeSantis urged him to apply for the position, which Fine said he would “consider seriously.”

Fine, Rodrigues and Levine did not respond to requests for comment.

What You Need to Know

The Board of Governors (BOG) oversees the operations of the 12 public universities in Florida. The governor appoints and the Florida Senate confirms 14 of its 17 members. Every college and university has a BOT, comprised of six governor-appointed members within its 13-member board. The BOT appoints the university president, who oversees all operations of an institution.

Official headshot of FAU Board of Trustees Chair Brad Levine. Photo courtesy of BOT media kit.

The governor is required to appoint new members to the Florida BOG and every public state university BOT. DeSantis appointed Rodrigues as SUS chancellor in September 2022 and reappointed Levine as Florida Atlantic’s BOT chair in April 2023.

Andrew Gothard is the president of the United Faculty of Florida, which represents faculty at all 12 state universities, 16 colleges and private institutions. He explains that historically, higher education operated with shared governance. This involves faculty and administration collaborating through faculty senates and unions to ensure academic independence and faculty rights.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed higher education bill HB 999, a bill limiting discussions and funding related to diversity, equity and inclusion, on May 15.

Michael Harris, associate professor of higher education and director of the Center for Teaching Excellence at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, believes the president plays an enormous role in protecting the institution from political interference and that students should care very much about not just who the president is, but also the process to select them. 

“There’s been a number of presidents in Florida that have been unable to protect their institutions from this outside influence. What that means for students and faculty are all these ways the state is trying to interfere with curriculum and what is thought,” said Harris.

DeSantis did not respond to requests for comment.

Gov. Ron DeSantis, April 17, 2023. Photo courtesy of DeSantis’ press office.

Catalysts: Ron DeSantis and Randy Fine

The search has received criticism from the FAU community because Fine does not have experience in higher education—he is a former gambling industry executive.

At the June 22 BOG education bill meeting, Levine reported that a state representative was among the pool of “highly qualified candidates,” though he has not confirmed whether it was Fine.

FAU announced the finalists for the position via an official press release on July 5. The list included Vice Admiral Sean Buck from the U.S. Naval Academy, Florida State University College of Business Dean Michael Hartline and former Chancellor of the University of North Carolina Wilmington Jose Sartarelli.

Harris says he was actually surprised at the quality of the final three candidates.

“I was amazed, given everything that has happened in Florida public higher education in the last year, that they got the public candidates that they had,” said Harris. “It is, I think, one of the worst jobs in higher education right now, to be a president of a public university in Florida given the political interference that we see. So the fact that they got three really viable candidates that have all you would want to see in a university president, that’s impressive.” 

Florida State Rep. Randy Fine speaking at a February House of Representatives meeting. Photo courtesy of the House of Representatives.

Bill Trapani, director of the School of Interdisciplinary Studies, believes that Fine’s actions have rendered him incapable of leading an institution of higher education.

Fine was the co-sponsor of HB 999 and voted in favor of the six and 15-week abortion bans approved by DeSantis in February and April 2022.

“I think Mr. Fine’s public record, the statements he’s offered, the actions he’s taken, have utterly disqualified him from any university in the world that I would be aware of in terms of his ambitions. But we live in a time and in a state where politics is being elevated over process,” said Trapani.

Gothard said the passage of the bill gives the university president sole control of the hiring, promotion and termination of university employees, which worries him.

Bill Trapani is the director of the School of Interdisciplinary Studies. Photo courtesy of Trapani.

“What Governor DeSantis and his supporters have done is they put an incredible amount of power into the hands of the university president and they’ve been very public that the reason for doing this is to get rid of faculty who have political beliefs and backgrounds, or who are from racial or gender-based or sexual orientation backgrounds, that they don’t like,” said Gothard.

Board Responses: Governors and Trustees

Gothard believes the reasons Rodrigues gave for suspending the search were paper-thin. He claims that if Rodrigues truly upheld the rules, numerous instances of violations would have arisen during recent searches at other institutions around the state. 

He said boards at Florida International University, Florida Gulf Coast University, New College of Florida and the University of Florida have employed similar methods.

“The only real difference we see here is that the governor’s chosen unqualified politician did not get into the final group of candidates and our perspective is that politics should not have anything to do with how we choose our university and college presidents in Florida,” said Gothard.

Harris believes that the presidential search suspension is not an isolated case of government involvement in academia, but another example of what he labels as “inappropriate influence into public higher education.”

FAU representatives have not announced whether this paused search will continue or if the university will conduct a new search. Gothard feels the ball is now in Rodrigues’ court.

“I mean, the question right now is, how far is Chancellor Rodrigues willing to take this?”

Editor’s note: This story is in the UP’s latest issue, which can be found physically on the distribution boxes around campus and under the Print tab on upressonline.com.

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.

Sofia De La Espriella is the News Editor for the University Press. For information regarding this or other stories, email [email protected] or message her on Instagram @sofidelaespriella.

Leave a Comment
More to Discover
About the Contributors
Elisabeth Gaffney
Elisabeth Gaffney, Managing Editor
Elisabeth is a junior 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.
Sofia De La Espriella
Sofia De La Espriella, News Editor
Sofia is a junior double majoring in multimedia journalism and history. She is passionate about governance, foreign relations, and the Latin American region. On a determined path toward graduate school, Sofia aims to specialize in these fields and acquire an in-depth understanding of their intricacies. Ultimately, she aspires to become a respected political journalist.

Comments (0)

Do you have something to say? Submit your comments below
All UNIVERSITY PRESS Picks Reader Picks Sort: Newest

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *