'Dysfunctional and unprofessional': Tensions flare during Florida Atlantic University meeting

The fractious meeting exposed a rift between board members over how some trustees have responded to the controversial pause of the presidential search process.

Photo by John Schnobrich on Unsplash

Amid a stalled search for a new president at Florida Atlantic University, drama between the two top-ranking members of the school’s Board of Trustees played out Tuesday — while multiple donors to the university said they want the search to move forward.

Tuesday’s fractious meeting exposed a rift between members of the board over how some trustees have responded to the controversial suspension of the search process.

Chairman Brad Levine kicked off the meeting by defending the process that resulted in the FAU Presidential Search Committee’s selection of three finalists for the post, whom he called “exceptionally well-qualified.”

Previous coverage of FAU search – Is three weeks enough time to find Florida Atlantic University's next president?

The finalists, whittled from 63 applicants, are Michael Hartline, who has been dean of Florida State University’s College of Business since 2016; Vice Admiral Sean Buck, superintendent of the United States Naval Academy since 2019; and Jose Sartarelli, who served as chancellor of the University of North Carolina Wilmington from 2015 through last year.

Levine, who was appointed to the board by then-Gov. Rick Scott in 2018, said Tuesday that the trustees were preparing to move ahead with public events involving the finalists last month when state university system Chancellor Ray Rodrigues suspended the search.

“These events would have provided our campus communities the opportunity to meet and interact with each of these finalists and provide us with feedback and consideration as we made the final selection,” Levine said, calling Rodrigues’ intervention unfortunate.

Levine noted that, as of Tuesday, none of the three finalists had asked to be removed from the search.

The search was put on hold after Rodrigues alleged “anomalies” had taken place. In a letter to Levine on July 7, the chancellor accused members of the search committee of participating in a “straw poll” to rank their preferred candidates.

Rodrigues also alleged that at least one candidate had been asked questions about their sexuality and preferred pronouns. The chancellor subsequently announced that the university system’s inspector general would lead an investigation into the alleged anomalies.

Levine said Tuesday that the survey designed to rank candidates was initially proposed by Barbara Feingold, vice-chairwoman of the FAU Board of Trustees. Levine said that he and Alan Levine, a member of the search committee who represents the state university system’s Board of Governors, “enthusiastically endorsed” Feingold’s suggestion.

The chairman on Tuesday also disputed Rodrigues’ allegations that parts of the search were conducted improperly and ran afoul of a new state law that deals with presidential searches in higher-education.

The trustees “received the opinion of one of the foremost constitutional lawyers that the committee’s use of the surveys … did not violate the law,” Levine said.

He also addressed Rodrigues’ concerns about questions related to candidates’ sexual orientation, saying that search firm AGB Search distributed a “voluntary survey” that the firm uses to gauge diversity of applicant pools.

“It would be inappropriate for the committee to have considered sexual orientation or gender identity of candidates when making a decision. However, this did not happen. Neither the committee nor the university had any knowledge of these questions being asked (of) the candidates,” Levine said.

But Feingold scolded Levine for speaking to reporters about the search process.

Feingold, who was appointed to the FAU trustees board by DeSantis in 2021, also backed Rodrigues’ accusations of anomalies in the search process.

“Number one, that search committee, we all agreed to NDA’s (non-disclosure agreements), that there would be non-disclosure. And I am really angry. At this point, I’m not only angry at what was put out in the newspapers from Mr. Levine, others in the community, I don’t know how they got their information, and Dick Schmidt,” Feingold said.

Schmidt, a search committee member and donor to the university, wrote in an opinion piece that he was “outraged and slandered by the implications” of Rodrigues’ allegations.

“I’d really like to know what’s going to happen to Dick Schmidt, how the university is going to go after him, because he was not supposed to be putting any information out there,” Feingold said.

Addressing Levine, Feingold added, “I resent the fact that today you’re talking for me, out of turn.”

Feingold also said that she did not vote for any of the three finalists for the job. Without identifying the applicants by name, Feingold said that two candidates had previous ethics violations — “one in the military, one who lied under oath.”

During Tuesday’s publicly broadcast meeting, Feingold said another candidate “was retired. And why was he a retired chancellor of a university? Because he had a board of trustees that voted him out in a no-confidence vote.”

Feingold earlier in the meeting pointed to “ethics violations” as one of the reasons the search was halted.

“That’s why the Board of Governors got involved, and that’s why the inspector general is involved. Because there were not only anomalies, there were ethics violations, and a lot of irregularities. You might be painting a certain picture, but it’s not an accurate and true picture. And I resent that,” Feingold said.

Despite Feingold’s comments, multiple trustees rallied behind Levine.

Trustee Piero Bussani said Levine “has my full support,” and trustee Robert Flippo said the chairman does things “the right way.”

Trustee Linda Stoch, who also was appointed by DeSantis to the FAU board in 2021, was the only trustee who vocally backed Feingold during Tuesday’s meeting. Stoch said the way Levine has “spoken to the Board of Governors and to the media has brought, I think, great disrepute to this university."

“I look forward to the inspector general’s resolutions so the university can move forward. And that’s all I have to say. Also that we all serve at the pleasure of the governor. All of us,” she added.

During a public-comment section of the meeting, multiple FAU donors and people who work for the school expressed a desire for the stalled search to move ahead.

Howard Weiner, who identified himself as a donor, said the presidential search “must continue without outside interference” and that the school’s next president “must be an educator, not a partisan politician.” The pause of the search intensified speculation that state Rep. Randy Fine, a Brevard County Republican, was a candidate for the presidential post.

Arthur Gutterman, who also said he is a donor to the school, defended Schmidt and commended Levine’s “outstanding job of keeping everything above board.”

Rebecca Lautar, an associate dean at FAU, also said she has “heard from a lot of stakeholders in our community who are waiting for us to continue our distinctive path.”

“The BOG’s (Board of Governors’) investigation delay puts FAU into a disadvantaged position. It makes FAU look dysfunctional and unprofessional,” Lautar said, adding that she also has voiced her opinion in the press. “We look terrible. The optics are bad.”

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