Non-disclosure agreements now required in Florida university president searches

Already exempted from public records law, the state university system’s Board of Governors quietly added an extra layer of confidentiality to searches.

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Months after the Legislature and Gov. Ron DeSantis approved a law that shields parts of searches for college and university presidents, state university system officials added an additional layer of secrecy that requires non-disclosure agreements.

The issue of non-disclosure agreements in presidential searches erupted last week, amid a dust-up between leaders of Florida Atlantic University’s Board of Trustees.

Searches for university and college presidents have been veiled following the passage of a 2022 law that created a public-records exemption for information that could identify applicants until near the end of the searches, when information about finalists can be released.

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But the state university system’s Board of Governors quietly added an extra layer of confidentiality in November, approving a rule requiring members of presidential search committees to sign non-disclosure agreements. The requirement was included as part of a wide-ranging consent agenda during a Nov. 9 meeting of the board, which did not discuss the non-disclosure mandate prior to approving the agenda item.

The rule requires “all persons with access to confidential applicant information protected” by the 2022 law to “execute a non-disclosure agreement to ensure confidentiality” of information about presidential searches.

“Failure to abide by the requirements of the non-disclosure agreement may subject an individual to civil or criminal penalties under Florida’s Sunshine Laws,” the regulation said.

The issue of non-disclosure agreements arose during an Aug. 15 meeting of Florida Atlantic University's Board of Trustees as the panel discussed the school's stalled search for a new president. State university system Chancellor Ray Rodrigues halted the search last month, amid what he called “anomalies.”

During last week’s meeting, Barbara Feingold, who serves as vice-chair of the FAU Board of Trustees and sits on the school’s Presidential Search Committee, accused fellow members of both panels of potentially running afoul of rules requiring confidentiality surrounding the search.

Feingold lashed out at trustee Chairman Brad Levine, who also serves as chairman of the search committee, and another member of the committee, Dick Schmidt, who wrote an op-ed saying he felt “outraged and slandered by the implications” of Rodrigues’ allegations.

Feingold said the men, who publicly defended the school's search process, potentially violated non-disclosure agreements signed by members of the search committee.

Agreements signed by the 16 members of FAU’s search committee required a pledge to adhere to five main “principles,” copies of the documents obtained by The News Service of Florida showed. 

One of the principles required members to “acknowledge that only the Chair is authorized to speak to the media on behalf of the institution.” 

A spokesman for FAU told the News Service that the agreement stemmed from the Board of Governors' regulation.

Open government advocate calls NDA requirement 'bizarre'

But Barbara Petersen, an open-government expert who is executive director of the Florida Center for Government Accountability, called parts of FAU’s non-disclosure agreement “bizarre.”

Much of the FAU document has “nothing to do with the secrecy provision” in the 2022 law, Petersen, an attorney, told the News Service in a phone interview.

“And it looked like overkill to me,” Petersen said, noting that the law includes “pretty stringent, far-reaching, overbroad” public-records and meeting exemptions. “It would have been good to just spell that out and just dump the rest of it.”

Petersen pointed to a part of the agreement that asked search committee members to follow a slew of additional principles about “the management of information about the work” of the committee.

“I will develop my own perspectives prior to group discussions yet remain open-minded,” one of the principles said.

Another part of the agreement required members to promise to “strive for impartial treatment of issues and dispassionate handling of controversial subjects. I understand that prospects and candidates who have held executive jobs and made difficult decisions have not necessarily been in positions to win popularity contests.”

The requirements appear to “go far beyond the needed message,” according to Petersen.

“I have to assume that the people who’ve been appointed to this committee are professionals. Adult professionals. And this kind of makes me think, well, do these people not have good sense? That I’m going to require you to come to your own conclusion? Oh, come on. It’s annoying,” she said. “It’s just bizarre. I’ve been appointed to many committees and I’ve never seen anything like that.”

Chancellor points to 'anomalies' in FAU search

Meanwhile, FAU’s search for a new president has drawn heavy attention since Rodrigues ordered its suspension on July 7 — after the search committee had named three finalists for the job.

The chancellor alleged “anomalies” in the search, including accusations that the search committee participated in a “straw poll” to rank preferred candidates. Rodrigues also said “at least one” candidate was asked questions about their sexuality and preferred pronouns.

Rodrigues subsequently ordered the Board of Governors’ inspector general to conduct a probe into the presidential search. The investigation is ongoing.

The suspension of the search also intensified speculation that state Rep. Randy Fine, a Brevard County Republican, was a candidate for the post. Under the 2022 law, information about applicants who did not make the final cut remains shielded. Fine, an ally of DeSantis', was not a finalist for the job.

Fine has not confirmed rumors that he applied for the job, but in a social media post on Sunday rebutted allegations that he is unqualified for the position.

“The wokies can’t even do basic research. No post-grad degree? MBA from Harvard summa cum (laude). No teaching experience? Teaching Fellow in Economics at Harvard. Published both a book at Harvard College and a paper at HBS. Not saying I applied but man these people are dumb,” Fine posted on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter.

The Florida Democratic Party is trying to obtain information about whether Fine was involved in the search.

The party filed a public records request last week seeking copies of “any and all written communications, including but not limited to emails, text messages, and social media messages,” between Feingold and Fine or any person acting on Fine’s behalf, “related to FAU’s pending search for a new President and/or the FAU Presidential Search” committee. The request also seeks information about phone calls between Fine and Feingold.

The Democrats also have requested similar communications between Feingold and DeSantis and anyone acting on his behalf, and Feingold and state Education Commissioner Manny Diaz Jr.

“What has been happening in Florida is a complete abuse of power, to manipulate the new law so that Ron DeSantis can get his hand-picked presidents to dismantle our current education system,” Florida Democratic Party Chairwoman Nikki Fried told the News Service.

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