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State University System suspends FAU’s presidential search, citing alleged ‘anomalies’ in process

Just days before the three finalists for Florida Atlantic University’s next president were set to speak at public forums, the search has been stopped in its tracks.

State University System of Florida Chancellor Ray Rodrigues sent a letter to Brad Levine, chairman of both the FAU Board of Trustees and the Presidential Search Committee, citing “anomalies that have been alleged in the Florida Atlantic University presidential search.” The letter, dated Friday, was posted on social media Friday evening.

The letter said Rodrigues’ office “received concerning information,” including that search committee members conducted a straw poll to rank their six preferred candidates out of a list of nearly 60 and that one candidate said a questionnaire asked if his sexual orientation is “queer” and that another survey asked whether his gender is “male, female or other” and what pronouns he uses.

The university publicly announced three finalists earlier this week: Vice Admiral Sean Buck, superintendent of the U.S. Naval Academy; Michael Hartline, dean of the College of Business at Florida State University; and Jose Sartarelli, Ph.D., former Chancellor of the University of North Carolina Wilmington. They were set to speak at forums on Monday, Wednesday and Thursday.

Not on the list was Rep. Randy Fine, R-Palm Bay, who previously told the South Florida Sun Sentinel the governor’s office approached him about applying for the job. Gov. Ron DeSantis’ office issued a statement of support at that time.

Rep. Anna Eskamani, an Orlando Democrat and a vocal critic of DeSantis, in a Facebook post Friday evening questioned the sudden decision.

“Definitely seems like someone is being a baby because they weren’t given a job they are clearly unqualified for,” Eskamani wrote, referring to Fine. “This is disgraceful and an insult to academic integrity.”

Rodrigues wrote in his letter that the questions about sexual orientation, gender and pronouns were “wholly irrelevant, inappropriate and potentially illegal.” The meeting where candidates were ranked in unofficial votes “may run afoul” of state statute pertaining to public records and meetings exemptions for university and college president applicants, Rodrigues also wrote.

FAU’s Levine told the South Florida Sun Sentinel on Friday evening that general counsel has guided the committee through the selection process and “we are convinced that we have run a clean, appropriate to the letter of the law, search.”

Rodrigues wrote in the letter that the straw poll rankings “were submitted confidentially and directly to the search firm.”

“The committee members’ selections and rankings were not disclosed on the record and there was no meaningful opportunity for the search committee members to discuss candidates prior to the straw poll,” Rodrigues wrote.

Levine said they did conduct a straw poll in a closed meeting, but they did not take any vote on the poll.

“We conducted a straw poll to help us narrow down, which is appropriate and legal in the state of Florida,” Levine said.

Levine said the search committee was not aware of the questionnaire cited in Rodrigues’ letter and that the questionnaire was run by a search firm the university hired, the information collected by them anonymous.

“It’s not shared with FAU. We don’t participate in it. We didn’t even know it was done,” he said.

Rodrigues’ letter acknowledges that FAU was not aware of the questions.

“Members of the search committee were not informed that these questions were being asked of candidates,” Rodrigues wrote. “This raises an additional concern about whether the search firm withheld material information from the search committee.”

Rodrigues wrote that Board of Governors Chairman Brian Lamb agreed that the search be suspended “at this time.”

A voicemail and email left for Rodrigues’ assistant after business hours Friday were not returned.

Levine said the search committee was “over the moon” with the three finalists, praising each of them for their accomplishments.

Sartarelli, who lives in Naples, spent seven years as chancellor of the University of North Carolina-Wilmington after working as West Virginia University’s dean of the College of Business and Economics. He declined to comment when reached by phone Friday evening.

In his time at UNCW, the university was recognized in the top 100 best public national universities by the U.S. News and World Report, and the university secured hundreds of millions of dollars to sustain its growth over the next decade, Sartarelli wrote in his letter of interest, among other accomplishments.

Hartline was the dean of FSU’s Business College for eight years and a faculty member for over two decades. He wrote in his cover letter that some of his accomplishments included increasing fundraising, over $210 million in his time as dean, developing new programs and created new revenue sources for the college.

He declined to comment when reached by phone Friday evening.

Buck is the Superintendent of the United States Naval Academy. Levine said Buck received at least two letters of support from former chiefs of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

“As I look to conclude 40 years of service wearing the cloth of our nation in August 2023, I realize I have much more to give,” Buck wrote in his letter of interest. “I am energized by the opportunity to learn more about how I could play a role in defining the future of Florida Atlantic University (FAU).”

When reached by phone Friday evening, Buck said, “I continue to be very proud and happy that they selected me to be one of the finalists, and I look forward to hopefully being able to present my credentials and myself to whatever committee will continue to make the consideration for the job, whenever that’ll be.”

Sun Sentinel staff writer Scott Travis contributed to this report.

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