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2 more finalists withdraw from UF presidential race

With only two finalists left of the original six, a fresh search for candidates to lead the university looks likely.

By BARRY KLEIN

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 26, 2000


Two more finalists dropped out of the running for the University of Florida presidency Tuesday, leading some members of the Board of Regents to say they expect to reopen the search for the next leader of the state's top public university.

University system Chancellor Adam Herbert said late Tuesday he is still reviewing his options, a position apparently intended to avoid embarrassing William Muse, the Auburn University president who is scheduled to begin interviewing for the job today in Gainesville.

The only finalists left from the original field of six are Muse and Anthony J. Catanese, 57, president of Florida Atlantic University of Boca Raton. With regents and faculty leaders calling for the search to be extended, there is little doubt new applicants will be solicited.

"I think that would be appropriate. The search won't be credible without a field of at least five or six," said C.B. Daniel, a Gainesville banker who is vice chairman of the regents' selection committee.

"It's kind of hard to search with just two people," said Steven Uhlfelder, a regent and former student body president at UF. "But I still think we'll get a good president."

It's unclear what prompted Peggy Meszaros, the provost at Virginia Tech University, and Alan Merten, the president of George Mason University, to withdraw Tuesday morning. Neither offered the university a reason, and neither returned calls. But some regents and university officials blamed Florida lawmakers for creating uncertainty in the state's university system by advancing a bill that would radically restructure how Florida's higher education system is governed.

The most important change would be the elimination of the regents, a 14-member board that is supposed to insulate the state's public universities from political influence. The regents would be replaced by individual boards of trustees at each of the state's 10 schools.

"Given that they don't even know who their boss will be, this is not the best context for presidential candidates to be making a critical career decision," said Dennis Ross, who was regents chairman when the search began.

"Anyone considering coming to UF would have to be troubled by the uncertainty caused by this horrendous piece of legislation," said E.T. York, a former university system chancellor who helped select several university presidents.

State Rep. Bill Sublette is one of the bill's prime backers. The Orlando Republican scoffed at the idea that the legislation is in any sense to blame for UF's problems.

"That's a stretch if I ever heard one," said Sublette, a UF graduate who said officials would do better to look at the impact of a recent faculty resolution criticizing the field of candidates.

"I wouldn't want to go into a position where the people I am going to be leading are signing petitions that say I'm not qualified," he said.

The UF search was on shaky ground even before Tuesday's announcements.

Two other finalists already had dropped out, and more than 275 faculty members had signed a resolution saying none of the candidates was qualified to lead UF to national prominence.

Herbert had hoped to name a successor to former President John Lombardi on May 17. That would have been more than eight months after the search began in earnest.

If the process is extended as expected, officials said it could be another six months before a new leader is selected.

For Herbert, who is fighting the legislative effort to reorganize him out of a job, the problems at UF are just the latest headache posed by a presidential search.

Since becoming chancellor in 1998, he has reopened searches at the University of North Florida in Jacksonville and at Florida Gulf Coast University in Fort Myers. He also endured considerable criticism for the process that led to the recent selection of Judy Genshaft as the next president of the University of South Florida.

In all of those instances, critics said the slate of candidates was, at best, underwhelming.

That theme also is being heard at UF.

"This was a narrow list of candidates that was not at all impressive," said Tom Auxter, a UF philosophy professor since 1973. "None of them comes from a school as good as this one. How can they be expected to lead the University of Florida to national prominence?"

Ironically, the latest searches have been the first at Florida universities to employ private headhunters. Their ability to operate in relative privacy was supposed to ensure a credible pool of candidates.

That was important given the state's reputation for overtly political searches. The ranks of UF presidents, for example, have included a state Supreme Court justice and a former regents chairman. Betty Castor, who resigned as president at USF last year, was a former state legislator and commissioner of education.

The UF search employed Korn/Ferry International, which was paid $90,000 plus expenses.

Staff writer Shelby Oppel contributed to this report.

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