Florida Sen. Ray Rodrigues tapped to lead state's public university system

He wants to 'provide the highest quality education at the most affordable price, with degrees that lead to employment,' Rodrigues said at a State University System Board of Governors meeting.

In this undated file photo, state Sen. Ray Rodrigues (R-Estero) speaks on the floor of the chamber.

In this undated file photo, state Sen. Ray Rodrigues (R-Estero) speaks on the floor of the chamber. Florida Senate

State Sen. Ray Rodrigues will take the helm of Florida’s state university system, as the Board of Governors on Wednesday unanimously approved the Estero Republican as the successor to outgoing Chancellor Marshall Criser. 

During a board meeting in Pensacola, Rodrigues laid out his overarching objectives for leading the university system, noting that the “bar has been set high” by Criser. “The goal is for us to provide the highest quality education at the most affordable price, with degrees that lead to employment,” Rodrigues said.

Rodrigues was by far the most politically connected candidate of eight people who applied for the chancellor job. He competed with only one other finalist for the post: Lori Cromwell, chief business officer for Emory University’s Candler School of Theology. Criser, who took over as chancellor overseeing the state’s network of 12 universities in 2014, had announced in July that he would be stepping down.

Board member Eric Silagy, who was a member of the chancellor search committee, said Wednesday there was “significant daylight” between the two candidates’ qualifications for the job. “You bring a very strong mix of experiences, both personal and professional, including your experience in the private sector, your experience at the university level, your experience with budgets and your experience obviously in the legislature,” Silagy – chairman, president and CEO of Florida Power & Light – said of Rodrigues.

Rodrigues currently is employed as Director of Interagency Partnerships at Florida Gulf Coast University, a job he will vacate to become chancellor. Rodrigues, who spoke about being a first-generation college student, has held jobs at the university for the past 16 years. He served as the school’s director of community relations and was a business manager for the university’s College of Arts and Sciences.

In June, he announced that he would not seek reelection to his southwest Florida Senate seat, setting off rumors that he would seek a job in higher-education. Rodrigues served in the state House for six years prior to his 2020 election to the Senate, where he became one of Senate President Wilton Simpson’s top lieutenants. One example of his legislative heft is having led the Senate’s efforts in Florida’s once-a-decade redistricting process.

Rodrigues also shepherded contentious higher-education bills through the process during his time in the Senate, including a measure that now requires colleges and universities to annually survey students and staff about “intellectual freedom and viewpoint diversity” on campuses. That law is the subject of an ongoing federal lawsuit.

During this year’s legislative session, Rodrigues sponsored a measure that allows the Board of Governors to create its own tenure-review process for professors. The measure also requires colleges and universities to change their accrediting organizations. That's a response to long standing tension between the state and the current accreditor for its higher-education institutions. The measure (SB 7044) was approved by lawmakers and signed by Gov. Ron DeSantis in April.

The United Faculty of Florida opposed both laws. Andrew Gothard, president of the faculty union, called the tenure-review and accreditation laws “bad policy, top to bottom.” But he expressed optimism about the union creating a new relationship with Rodrigues.

“We have certainly had our disagreements with Sen. Rodrigues, much as we have had our disagreements with the Board of Governors in the past. We have not often agreed on what makes good policy for higher education. We have not agreed on how faculty and students should be treated. But we have also had opportunities on a few occasions to work with Sen. Rodrigues on various bills, and so we hope that in this appointment we can forge a new relationship,” Gothard told The News Service of Florida.

Details of Rodrigues’ contract and compensation package have not been finalized, as the board’s approval gave the go-ahead to initiate the negotiation process. Also uncertain is when Criser will exit the job and when Rodrigues will officially start as the university system’s chancellor. Those dates will be decided during negotiations, according to Board of Governors spokeswoman Renee Fargason.

Criser is paid $412,000 per year through a combination of $200,000 in state funds and $212,000 from the Board of Governors Foundation, and also receives a $55,000 yearly housing and vehicle expense allowance. State records show that Rodrigues is paid $96,000 a year at Florida Gulf Coast University, which is in Fort Myers. 

Vikki Shirley, the board’s general counsel, read a recognition for the outgoing chancellor, crediting Criser with presiding over a “strengthening” of the state university system during his eight-year tenure. The recognition also highlighted parts of Criser’s time as chancellor, such as his oversight of the university system’s response to COVID-19. “During this period, system enrollment, student retention and graduation remained stable,” Shirley said. 

Criser did not indicate what his next move will be when he officially vacates the chancellor post. The Board of Governors also scheduled a "special" meeting for Sept. 22, though it is unclear if that meeting is related to Rodrigues’ appointment. As of late Wednesday afternoon, a meeting agenda had not been posted on the board’s website.

This is a free News Service of Florida story for City & State Florida readers. For the most comprehensive and in-depth political and policy news, consider a subscription, beginning with a 10-day free trial. Click here to sign up!

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