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For UF chief, it's 6 ... 4 ... 2 ... 0

The last two contenders for the presidency withdraw, and for the regents it's a time to postpone. And reflect. And blame.

By BARRY KLEIN

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 2, 2000


The search for a new University of Florida president collapsed Monday after the final two candidates said they no longer were interested in running the state's largest and most prestigious school.

Frustrated members of a Board of Regents selection committee decided to delay the search. They agreed instead to an indefinite period of "reflection."

Blame, however, was the order of business in the short term.

Officials involved in the search said much of the disarray is being caused by the Legislature's efforts to abolish the regents and replace them with a board of trustees at each university.

If that happens, said William Funk, a director of the search firm who helped compile the initial pool of candidates, a new president would be working for bosses who had no say in his or her hiring.

"In this climate, it would be very difficult to go out and begin assembling a new pool tomorrow," Funk said. "Things need to calm down."

Another complication in the search is the resolution that was recently signed by almost 300 UF faculty members. It declared all of the finalists unqualified to lead UF.

Those factors apparently were enough to persuade Auburn University President William Muse to drop out of the running Monday. He said he felt his time and talents could bebetter used where he is.

Florida Atlantic University President Anthony Catanese came to the same decision a few hours later. He said he had been asked by numerous supporters to stay on at the Boca Raton school.

In a conference call Monday with members of the selection committee, university system Chancellor Adam Herbert said he wasn't sure when a new president could be selected.

The regents had hoped to name a successor to John Lombardi on May 17, and have a replacement in office by this fall. Herbert also wanted to attract a high-quality president, to bring the university further into the upper ranks of higher education.

Now it may be weeks before a new timeline can be established.

Herbert said interim UF President Charles Young, who is being paid the equivalent of at least $250,000 annually, has agreed to stay on for the time being. But even that is complicated.

Young's wife, who spends much of her time in Los Angeles, is battling cancer.

The search committee will consider its next move at a May 17 meeting with an advisory group of UF supporters. Officials emphasized the process won't be starting from scratch: The search firm is expected to approach several of the administrators who declined to apply in the first round.

Herbert said the state's liberal public records law discouraged many of those candidates. They were under too much pressure from their bosses to be seen as job hunting for an extended period, he said.

While that won't change, Funk said the uncertainty surrounding how Florida's 10 public universities will be governed should be decided relatively soon. The Legislature is set to adjourn Friday.

Regent Phil Lewis said he hoped someone would take the time to drill some sense into UF faculty members. Several regents have said they have unrealistic standards for their next leader.

"(We) ought to do some searching on campus to see if they want St. Peter or St. Paul or just who they want for president," Lewis said. "We don't want to have to go through this again."

The delay is also complicating efforts to fill other vacancies at UF.

The Gainesville Sun reported Monday that the university is missing a permanent provost, a chief fundraiser and deans for five of its top colleges, including the Law School. Interim officials are filling those positions.

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

In addition to Catanese and Muse, the six finalists for the UF presidency were:

Elson S. Floyd, president of Western Michigan University, who decided to stay at his school. James C. Moeser, chancellor at the University of Nebraska, who accepted the position of chancellor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Peggy S. Meszaros, senior vice president and provost at Virginia Tech. She withdrew without explanation.

Alan G. Merten, president of George Mason University in Fairfax, Va. He said he couldn't resist the calls of support from his own campus.

Despite the faculty's complaints, Herbert defended the quality of the now-defunct field of candidates.

"Bill Funk and his colleagues developed a pool with the largest number of sitting presidents in the 20-plus years I've been in this state," he said.

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