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

UNIVERSITY PRESS

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

UNIVERSITY PRESS

‘Proud to call Barbara my friend’: Experts say friendship between Rep. Randy Fine, Barbara Feingold complicates presidential search

Fine confirmed in an email to the University Press that he and FAU Board of Trustees Vice Chair are “close friends,” raising concern about a potential conflict of interest.
Barbara+Feingold+%28middle%29+speaking+at+an+FAU+Board+of+Trustees+meeting.+Photo+courtesy+of+FAUs+website.
Barbara Feingold (middle) speaking at an FAU Board of Trustees meeting. Photo courtesy of FAU’s website.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to properly reflect Rep. Anna Eskamani’s tie to the presidential search, and to include Feingold’s signed non-disclosure agreement, obtained through public records.

A potential conflict of interest between rumored Florida Atlantic University presidential candidate Rep. Randy Fine (R-Brevard County) and Presidential Search Committee member Barbara Feingold has governance experts and state officials raising their eyebrows.

Fine confirmed that he and Feingold, FAU Board of Trustees (BOT) vice chair and search committee member, are “close friends” via an Aug. 27 email to the University Press.

Rep. Randy Fine, R-Brevard, questions a presenter during the Education Committee meeting on January 22, 2019. (Photo and caption courtesy of the Florida House of Representatives website).

“As State Chairs of the Republican Jewish Coalition, I met the Feingolds when I first entered politics in 2015 and over the years, we have become close friends,” he wrote.

In March, Fine revealed to a political blog that Gov. Ron DeSantis had recommended he apply for the open position of FAU president, which the university had begun the search process for after former President John Kelly stepped down in December 2022. BOT Chair Brad Levine named a state representative among the pool of applicants at the June 22 State University System Board of Governors meeting, though it has yet to be confirmed it was Fine.

“It is not the governor’s job to be involved in the presidential selection process of a university. That is the sole purview of the Board of Trustees,” said Sondra Barringer, associate professor of education policy and leadership at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.

Feingold and her late husband Jeffrey have contributed over $30 million to FAU. Jeffrey served on the BOT for over two decades, beginning in 2010, and Feingold succeeded him when he passed away in 2021. The Feingolds are well-known philanthropists in South Florida.

“Barbara and Jeffrey, of blessed memory, are extraordinary philanthropists in Florida, not only to state agencies like Florida Atlantic University, but Jewish causes all over South Florida,” Fine wrote. “I am proud to call Barbara my friend.”

The University Press made multiple attempts to contact Feingold through the FAU Foundation, Republican Jewish Coalition, Delray Beach City Council, former President John Kelly, the BOT, and FAU Media Relations, but was unsuccessful.

DeSantis did not respond to requests for comment.

Feingold’s Contributions

The Feingolds have also made several contributions to political causes, including a $10,000 donation Barbara made to Fine’s campaign in October 2022, after her appointment to the BOT and before Kelly resigned. She revealed at the last BOT meeting on Aug. 15 that she did not vote for any of the three finalists.

Her large contribution raises red flags for many governance experts and public officials.

“I would say the fact that he’s friends with a member of the search committee is not a problem. That’s fairly common, even outside of political circumstances,” said Jeremy C. Young, Freedom to Learn program director at PEN America. “The fact that a member of the search committee gave $10,000 to his campaign, and this is in a state legislative race where that’s the significant amount of his campaign cash, that raises some red flags for me.”

Through a public records request, the UP obtained a copy of Feingold’s signed non-disclosure agreement, the same form every member of the Presidential Search Committee signed. Principle three states: “I understand that any appearance of real or potential conflict of interest in the relationship between me and a prospect or applicant should be avoided and that its occurrence will be disclosed promptly to the committee.”

State Rep. Anna Eskamani (D-Orange County) shared a screenshot of the original letter Board of Governor Chancellor Ray Rodrigues wrote to FAU Board of Trustees Chair Brad Levine asking to suspend the search. When the UP spoke to her for this article, she said a professional line has to be drawn regardless of personal relationships.

“I think relationships are beautiful things in any field, including politics. But this situation as it pertains to a university president needs to go beyond personal relationships,” Eskamani said. “Like we are talking about a six-figure position that oversees the academic integrity of the entire university… And so it’s so important for us to not be blocked, influenced or corrupted by relationships, political or not.”

Education experts say political interference in education is not new, and it has only become more prevalent in recent years. 

“The political nature doesn’t entirely surprise me – these kinds of things (favoritism and patronage) happen quite often,” Cameron Arnzen, politics and public policy instructor and doctoral student at Teacher’s College of Columbia University, wrote in an email.

According to the conflict of interest policy in FAU Board of Trustees’ Policies and Procedures manual, no trustee can have any interest, financial or otherwise, engage in any business transaction, contractual relationship, “…or incur any obligation of any nature which is in substantial conflict with the proper discharge of his/her duties as it relates to the University or its affiliated organizations.”

Barringer feels that even if there is an appearance of conflict of interest, it undermines the trust of the university community.

“I think even if it doesn’t meet the strict standards of conflict of interest, that undermines the trust and the search committee and potentially their objectivity in the search process, and so I can definitely understand why faculty, students, etc, would be very concerned by that, and I think they should be,” Barringer said.

Political & Personal Ties

Both Fine and Feingold serve on the Republican Jewish Coalition (RJC) and have worked together to combat antisemistism in Florida. 

“We have worked hard side-by-side to stamp out antisemitism in our state, and Barbara and Jeffrey co-chaired the Governor’s and my trip to Israel in 2019 where we signed my legislation which was the strongest ‘anti-antisemitism’ bill in the nation,” wrote Fine in his email.

Niambi Carter, associate professor at the University of Maryland School of Public Policy, says their involvement in RJC is not coincidental, and that their identities as Jewish Republicans has brought them together. She believes that Feingold doesn’t necessarily need to recuse herself from the search committee for a potential conflict of interest with Fine and his rumored involvement, as many experts have suggested.

“Most of us who participate in any kind of group decision making, and I don’t care whether it’s university presidents or departmental business, […] the process has to rule the day, not our personal feelings, not our personal identities,” Carter said. “And if there’s an established process that has been followed, just because you don’t get your choice this time, does that mean that the entire process is illegitimate?”

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, 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.

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