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UF to choose next president this week

Interviews of the candidates began Monday, and a final choice from the field of 11 is due Wednesday.

Published October 7, 2003

GAINESVILLE - The last time the University of Florida tried to pick a president, four finalists withdrew, the faculty declared the other two unfit and the school gave up.

Three years later, it is an entirely different search.

UF officials said Monday they are surprised that 11 quality candidates, presidents or top administrators at universities across the nation, chose to interview this week.

A search committee started interviewing candidates Monday, and the board of trustees will select a new president Wednesday.

"That speaks volumes about the University of Florida," said Manny Fernandez, chairman of the search committee and UF board of trustees member. "It's one of the most desirable jobs in the country."

The search committee interviewed five candidates Monday, including a Nobel Prize winner from the Ivy League's Cornell University, and asked about athletics, fundraising and research. Afterward, committee members boasted about their impressive candidates and toasted their success with wine and cheese.

Another 16 candidates wanted the top post at Florida's flagship university, Fernandez said. He said they withdrew because they did not want their names to become public and risk losing their jobs.

"I am amazed at the quality of the candidates," said Roland Daniels, a Gainesville car dealer and trustee who sits on the search committee. "It becomes a nightmare for us to winnow this down."

For UF, generally regarded as one of the nation's top 25 public universities, selecting a new president is one of the biggest decisions in years.

The search committee began interviews Monday amid criticism about a rushed process. After a nine-month search, the school abruptly released six candidates' names Saturday and scheduled interviews for Monday and today.

Officials said they had to hurry so that candidates would have their names in public as required under Florida's Sunshine Law for as little time as possible.

"It's really ridiculous," UF geography professor Ary Lamme III said. "The existence of the Sunshine Law is being used as an excuse. We need a lot more transparency."

Jay Berger, a California headhunter who has worked on several searches at Florida universities, including the most recent search for a University of South Florida president, said the timetable seemed hurried.

"We try to reduce the exposure whenever we work with candidates in Florida," he said. "But three days, that's very fast."

The 17-member search committee met four times, though much of the work was done behind the scenes.

Members and trustee Chairman Marshall Criser met with hundreds of potential candidates across the nation.

A private consultant gathered information from them and helped Fernandez decide who would be invited for interviews.

"The fact was this process was conducted in a way that's not open," said Joe Little, a UF law professor. "It appears to me that there's a fundamental flaw in the process that could lead to litigation."

Some faculty members said they worry that the shortened timetable means that the trustees already have a favorite candidate and that the interviews were just a formality.

Others around the state have also heard it's a done deal.

"You can bet they have a favorite," said T.K. Wetherell, president of Florida State University and former Florida House speaker.

But Criser disputed that assumption and supported the process.

"Someone will always question the product. Some will always question the process," he said. "And some will always question the product and the process."

Many predicted that a politician, perhaps even U.S. Sen. Bob Graham, would be a finalist.

But all of the candidates are academics working at universities. "It sends the right message, that we don't just hire politicians," said Joan Ruffier, a member of the UF Foundation and a former member of the search committee.

UF officials say this search is different from the failed effort in 2000 to replace John Lombardi.

This search committee is one-third smaller than the unwieldly, 52-member committee from three years ago.

Florida's higher education governance structure also is finally settled, with a new statewide Board of Governors and individual boards of trustees.

Only a small number of other major research schools are searching for a leader now, which means less competition. And, UF officials say, the school's reputation has only grown.

UF expects to pay its new president up to $900,000 in salary and benefits.

UF president Charles Young already earns more than any other president of a public university in Florida: $404,950 a year in total compensation. Fernandez said he has reached agreements with all 11 candidates and that UF is willing to honor their agreements. The university is spending $100,000 on the search firm A.T. Kearney. It has spent another $15,000 on travel and other expenses.

The search committee will interview six more candidates today, and recommend two to four to the board of trustees.

The board will interview them Wednesday along with students, faculty and administrators, then pick a president that night.

- Times staff writers Monique Fields and Stephen Hegarty and researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.

[Last modified October 7, 2003, 02:33:49]

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