By MARGIE MENZEL
THE NEWS SERVICE OF FLORIDA
THE CAPITAL, TALLAHASSEE, July 22, 2016………. As the University of West Florida searches for a new president — and the Aug. 15 application deadline approaches — former state Senate President Don Gaetz says he’ll likely wait until then to decide whether to pursue the top job at the Pensacola school.
“I am taking counsel with people I respect,” said Gaetz, a Niceville Republican who cannot run again for the Senate this year because of term limits. “But I expect I’ll make a decision by mid-August.”
University of West Florida President Judith Bense is retiring at the end of the year, and the university’s board of trustees will vote on her successor Sept. 15.
If Gaetz pursues the job, he could follow in the footsteps of another powerful political figure, former House Speaker John Thrasher, who became president of Florida State University after a contentious process in 2014.
But by waiting, Gaetz also could avoid the controversy that surrounded Thrasher’s bid for the Florida State presidency. That controversy included the Florida State search committee pausing the process to interview only Thrasher. Committee members said Thrasher’s desire for the job had kept other potential candidates from applying.
At the University of West Florida, however, where the search committee met Friday, 60 candidates have already submitted applications, with more expected — including that of Provost Martha Saunders, who told the Pensacola News Journal this month that she intended to apply.
What’s more, said former Florida House Speaker Allan Bense, a longtime ally of both Gaetz and Thrasher, the latter’s performance as Florida State president could smooth Gaetz’s path to the top job at the University of West Florida.
“With (Thrasher’s) success, I think it makes it a bit easier for Don Gaetz, if in fact the search committee and the trustees select him,” said Bense, who is Judith Bense’s brother and was chairman of Florida State’s Board of Trustees when it tapped Thrasher for the top job. “It makes his ride a little smoother than John’s was.”
University of West Florida Board of Trustees Chairman Lewis Bear, Jr., said the school has an open selection process, with emphasis placed on advancing its 10-year goal of achieving what’s known as “emerging preeminence” status within the state system. That would require hitting six of 12 benchmarks dealing with research and other aspects of faculty and student achievement. It also would garner additional state funding.
“It’s a pretty far reach for us, but the administration was willing to work towards it,” Bear said. “So I think that anybody who applies for this position needs to understand that we’re very serious about changing our — what’s considered a small-town university — into a major university in the state of Florida.”
Given that Gaetz authored the “emerging preeminence” legislation that passed in 2016, “he probably has a better understanding of what that means in Florida” than an out-of-state candidate, Bear said. “But creating the law that establishes something does not, I don’t think, give you a leg up in meeting the challenge.”
Gaetz — who as Senate president appointed Bear to the Enterprise Florida board of directors in 2013 — said it’s up to the university to decide “whether they need to continue with an inside focus and an inside candidate or whether they need to broaden the leadership base.”
He acknowledged he did not have experience in higher education but added that he went into other jobs in the past without experience in the fields. That included his former role as superintendent of the Okaloosa County schools.
“I am sort of the quintessential non-traditional candidate for every job I’ve ever had,” he said. “What I’ve tried to do is build teams and manage teams that could exceed expectations.”
Allan Bense also pointed out — as have members of the search committee — that Gaetz would likely find a ready ear at the state Capitol.
As to the question of hiring another powerful politician to steer a state university, Jennifer Proffitt, president of the United Faculty of Florida, said the union simply wanted the process to be open and transparent.
“My concern during the whole FSU search process — and what I said in front of the board (of trustees) many times — was that the search was not open and transparent,” said Proffitt, who was president of the union’s Florida State chapter when Thrasher was selected. “I think that is critical. … Higher education folks care about process.”
Bense, who said the Florida State search committee ultimately heard many hours of public testimony, agreed.
“If I were the (UWF) selection committee, I’d keep my eyes wide open and take a look at all of the applicants — all of them,” he said.