FAU needs to buck the trend of paying big bucks to rookie school presidents

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Editorials are the opinion of The Palm Beach Post editorial board and not of the Post editorial staff.

Florida Atlantic University’s brewing presidential salary problem hasn’t caught up with the University of Florida or the far-right experiment at New College of Florida. But give it time. Paying huge sums to conservatives with little experience running an institution of higher learning seems to be a thing in this country.

If the appointments of Richard Corcoran at New Florida College and Ben Sasse at the University of Florida are any indication, political connections rather than academic considerations will also decide the selection of FAU’s next president.

More ▼: How did Florida universities fare in the new US News rankings? See FAU

Sasse, a former Republican U.S. senator who has some academic experience, landed one of the nation’s richest contracts with a five-year contract that will pay nearly $10 million in salary and benefits.

Corcoran, a former speaker of the Florida House of Representatives and commissioner of education, didn’t fare too badly either. He now directs New College in Sarasota. Never mind that the school has only 700 students, his compensation package totaled $1.1 million annually for nearly five years, including base salary, bonuses and deferred compensation. That works out to nearly $1,600 per student per year.

The reality is that university presidents are high-paying jobs, with at least 21 in the nation paying more than $1 million, according to US News & World Report. Still, it doesn’t help higher education in Florida that the salaries here are paid to ex-regs who are politically connected. It’s bad enough that Florida recently passed laws and regulations that threaten faculty tenure, disrupt what can be taught, and undermine universities’ efforts to diversify student organizations, faculty, and programs.

Universities should be havens where facts and skills are learned, beliefs challenged and expression encouraged – overseen by men and women who value education and have the training and experience to handle the rigors of running a university. It just hasn’t been happening here in Florida lately.

Politics get in the way of FAU’s presidential quest

FAU is the next school to size up for DeSantis. FAU was about to name a new president when the chancellor of the State University System ended its search for dubious concerns. Whatever the chancellor’s stated rationale, it appears the wrong candidate failed to make the cut: state Rep. Randy Fine, R-Palm Bay, a far-right lawmaker who had expressed interest in Gov. DeSantis for the job. It’s not known if Fine even applied for the job, but what is known is that the lawmaker has one big fan on the FAU Board of Trustees — Vice Chair Barbara Feingold.

Feingold and her late husband, Dr. Jeffrey Feingold, were longtime supporters of FAU. After his death, she took up their cause to establish a dental college at FAU, an idea seen by school administrators and some trustees as a distraction. However, Feingold had one consistent supporter in Fine, a member of the House Appropriations Committee who helped secure $40 million this spring for the dental school project. At the trustees’ meeting in August, Feingold criticized the committee’s selection of finalists, citing unspecified ethical concerns. She also criticized board chairman Brad Levine for objecting to state involvement in the process, as The Palm Beach Post’s Andrew Mara reported this week.

Applicants who have deep academic experience and can attract a broad range of philanthropic donors, develop curricula, and attract academic talent to teach need not apply. In Florida, political ideology and allegiance seem to be prerequisites for being able to lead a public college or university.

If Fine does get the job at Florida Atlantic, he would join a growing list of public university presidents whose political connections rather than academic experience have been a priority, going back to the days when former House Speaker John Thrasher was appointed president of his alma mater, Florida State University. Thrasher actually turned out to be a good president. FAU can only hope for a similar result.

Meanwhile, three months and counting, FAU remains without a new president. One would think we were electing a Speaker of the House. At some point, that will change. But we can count on one thing: Whoever gets the job, the winning candidate will be well paid – by you.

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