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‘You’re going to waltz right in’: Randy Fine talks of how FAU presidential bid fizzled out

State Rep. Randy Fine applied for the job of Florida Atlantic University president after the governor’s office assured him he was a shoo-in, only to discover those at FAU had other plans, the lawmaker said.

Fine gave his first detailed account about his role in FAU’s search for a new leader in a phone interview Thursday with the South Florida Sun Sentinel.

Gov. Ron DeSantis’ office said in March that Fine would make a good president of FAU, but the decision was ultimately up to a search committee and Board of Trustees at FAU. When the search committee announced three finalists July 5 for the Board of Trustees to consider, Fine wasn’t one of them.

“The community didn’t want me,” Fine said. “I don’t think it has anything to do with me. I think they don’t want a conservative non-academic.”

Fine’s comments followed a feud this week between Fine and Gov. Ron DeSantis, after Fine flipped his support to Donald Trump in the Republican primary for president, saying that DeSantis has been too weak on antisemitism in the wake of the Hamas attack on Israel. DeSantis suggested Tuesday that Fine may be upset he didn’t get the FAU presidency job.

Fine said that DeSantis has been slow to respond to antisemitism on university campuses. He noted DeSantis required universities to stop sanctioning student groups that may have sympathies to Hamas, after Fine said he was endorsing Trump.

Fine suggested DeSantis’ handling of the FAU presidency issue was troubling as he considered whether to shift his support to Trump. He said most members of the FAU Board of Trustees are people either the governor appointed or the DeSantis-appointed State University System Board of Governors appointed.

“If you can’t get those people to do what you want, how are you going to get Vladimir Putin to do it?” Fine said. “I think it’s an insightful example of failure.”

Brad Levine, chairman of the FAU Board of Trustees, would only give a general statement about Fine’s candidacy.

“In response to Randy Fine’s public comments regarding not being short listed as a candidate to lead FAU, the record speaks for itself,” he said. “As for his statements decrying Gov. DeSantis for not supporting Israel or our Jewish community, I must disagree wholeheartedly.”

Levine said, “At FAU, we have a large Jewish student population and I myself am a conservative Jewish person. Gov. DeSantis has always been an ardent supporter of Israel and on behalf of myself, our students, and our Jewish community Mr. Fine could not be more wrong about the governor’s support for us.”

Fine said his interest in the FAU job started when he got a call Feb. 12 from an official with the governor’s office encouraging him to apply. He didn’t name the official.

At that time DeSantis allies were starting to take over colleges and universities, including New College of Florida in Sarasota and South Florida State College in Avon Park, at the same time DeSantis was vowing to make colleges less “woke” or left wing. Fine has sponsored or championed legislation, such as a bill to keep kids out of drag shows and bills that restrict the discussion of LGBTQ topics in school.

“The governor wanted to transform the higher-education system, which is something I agree with, and I think they believed that I had the turn-around skills for what they felt the university needed,” he said.

FAU’s location in Boca Raton, home to a large Jewish population, was likely also a factor, Fine said.

“I think they also thought that because I was Jewish, you know, it’s FAU and it’s Boca, that it would be a good fit for the university and a good fit for me personally,” he said. “If I wasn’t Jewish, I don’t think they would have called.”

While university presidents are selected by the school’s Board of Trustees, not the governor, Fine was told that wasn’t a problem, he said. Most trustees are either appointed directly or indirectly by the governor, giving DeSantis influence.

“Their pitch was everybody wants you. The path has been cleared,” Fine said. “If you say yes, you’re going to waltz right in.”

Fine said he didn’t say yes right away, because he’d already filed to run for state Senate and had started raising money. He said he also had concerns about disrupting his family, including his son, who attends a top-ranked high school in Brevard County. He said it took him nearly a month to say yes.

A DeSantis spokesperson didn’t respond to a request for comment. But an unnamed DeSantis official gave a contradictory version of events to Politico. Fine and his allies “went to the governor’s office begging to get him the FAU job. …  Leadership and everyone was eager to be rid of him in the Legislature,” the official said, according to the news site.

Fine said that’s false.

“It wasn’t something I was looking for or wanted to do. It’s the opposite of begging,” he said.

Fine said he agreed to apply on three conditions: that it was a sure thing, that it be announced by the end of the legislative session so he could say goodbye to colleagues and that his name not be released until the final stages.

State law requires the names of applicants be kept secret unless they make it to the finalist stage.

However, on March 28, Fine did a round of interviews saying that he’d been asked by the governor’s office to apply and he was seriously considering it. Fine said he agreed to to do that because the news had already been leaked to media.

“I don’t know who leaked it. I actually don’t think it was the governor’s office. I think was FAU,” Fine said. “Because obviously they found out because of the internal conversations. You can’t mobilize the liberal armies if they don’t know about it, so they leaked it.”

The announcement of Fine’s possible candidacy did create concern among many faculty and students and some donors. One professor, Bill Trapani, even applied for president as a protest, skewering Fine in his application letter.

Still, Fine said, “I was told the path is cleared. It’ll be done by the end of May, and then the deadline slipped and May became June and June became July.”

The presidential search committee interviewed him as a semifinalist June 14, and Fine said the interview didn’t go well. He said Chairman Brad Levine “had put a lot of non-conservatives on that search committee” who “didn’t agree with the governor’s vision for higher education.”

Fine said the committee didn’t consider that his background was not as a university administrator. In addition to being a legislator, Fine is a retired casino executive.

“I was given a series of questions that basically had nothing to do with anything about me,” he said. “They were for a seasoned traditional academic. Talk about your experience managing sports teams. Talk about your experience managing academic research.”

All semifinalists were asked the same questions, FAU officials said.

Still, Fine said he was surprised that when finalists were announced July 5, he didn’t even make the top three.

“If they had said, ‘Hey Randy, do you want to update your resume which you haven’t done in over 10 years and apply for a job along with 65 other people, I would have said no,” Fine said. “I wasn’t looking to leave the Legislature. I wasn’t looking for a job. I wasn’t looking to move.”

But two days later, many believed Fine might be back in the running. The Board of Governors, which must confirm the president selected by the FAU trustees, suspended the search, citing “anomalies.”

One issue was related to the use of a straw poll to narrow candidates, an issue Fine said he was unaware of. Another related to a diversity survey from the search consultant that asked questions about sexual orientation and gender identity, Fine acknowledged he did complain to DeSantis’ office about that, but it was before finalists were named and not because he wasn’t selected.

As to why the governor’s office or the Board of Governors didn’t deal with the survey concerns before finalists were named, Fine said, “I think they legitimately thought that they were going to be able to influence the board and the search committee to do what they wanted.”

Tony Lee, a spokesman for the Board of Governors, would not address Fine’s suggestion that the search wouldn’t have been stopped had he been named a finalist. The board’s inspector general is conducting an investigation of the search process and is expected to give an update at a Nov. 9 meeting.

“It is our policy not to comment on such investigations,’ Lee said. “In addition, the State University System of Florida does not comment on search committee applicants until they are named as finalists.”

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