08/14/2019

Miami Dade faculty sue to take back college presidency

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The search for a new president at Miami Dade College was exemplary: A committee of 17 stakeholders, including faculty, shared applicant information with the campus community and even circulated videos of applicants’ final presentations. After 24 years with Eduardo Padrón, a supremely popular president who was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Barack Obama, the decision felt especially important, and the entire campus was engaged. Then everything changed.

#sosmdc

On the day they were expected to choose a new president to head the largest community college in the nation, Miami Dade College’s board of trustees members rejected three of the search committee’s top four finalists, suggested loosening the requirements for new candidates, and indicated they will restart the search process on their own.

United Faculty of Miami Dade College members are furious that their voices are being silenced; members of the search committee are outraged. Several faculty members, including some who were on the committee, are suing the college for violating its own constitution, insisting that it return to the original, transparent search structure.

By hijacking the appointment process, the board has signaled its intent to align with Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis and place a political appointee—possibly one with zero academic experience—in the position of president of the college. That would be a far cry from the original selection process, which began in March.

“It was fair and transparent by design,” says Elizabeth Ramsay, president of United Faculty of Miami Dade College. “It allowed stakeholders to follow each step, from the convening of the search committee to the candidate interviews.”

“We were meticulous in making sure the candidates we selected would be qualified,” says Marie Etienne, a professor of nursing and UFMDC member who was part of the search committee. She says it was a “slap in the face” when the board rejected the search committee’s work.

“I and my colleagues had been following the search closely for months, and it wasn't until the final step, when the board of trustees was responsible for naming the next president from among the four finalists recommended by the committee, that the trustees decided to throw the process into chaos,” says Ramsay.

The board has indicated it will “revisit” the qualifications for candidates, raising the possibility that requirements will be watered down to suit political appointees with little university experience. One trustee, Marcell Felipe, explained on local TV why he wants to restart the search process and take more time meeting new candidates: "If you want me to jump into bed at the very last minute, at least take me to dinner, give me a little wine, and let’s see where it leads."

Liz and Marie

“A comment like this is deeply embarrassing because it tarnishes MDC's stellar reputation and confirms all of the very worst stereotypes about South Florida,” says Ramsay. “Local #4253 won't stand for this. We'll fight back against the politicization of the search process and fight like hell to protect our students' access to high-quality public higher ed.” The union has posted images of the college, accompanied by the words: “This is not a trophy and the presidency of the nation’s largest and most prestigious public college is not a political prize.”

Etienne says any candidate should at least hold a doctoral degree and have experience in academia and leadership; innovation, entrepreneurial spirit and a global perspective are desirable as well. “We want whoever they bring to us to be well-qualified, someone who can actually take our institution to a newer height, not bring it down,” she says. “I hope and pray they take back their decision and allow us to go through the process as we have done it.”

A group of faculty members filed a lawsuit July 31 accusing the college of violating its own constitution and demanding the board complete the established presidential search process. UFMDC has launched a petition insisting the board adhere to the transparent and inclusive selection process and proclaiming that, “We cannot allow colleges and universities to become political playgrounds where politicians appoint the politically connected.” The campaign, SOS Miami Dade College, includes opportunities for advocates to write letters to the board, attend the public board meetings and follow the latest developments in the fight.

Community members have gotten involved as well, and the Miami Herald is calling out the college for abusing its power. “Anyone who has seen Florida university presidencies tailor-made to give retiring state legislators—non-educators—a soft place to land should not be shocked, only outraged,” the editorial board wrote. “In other words, a remade MDC board is looking for a political puppet—not a professional educator, not a fighter for students and the community MDC serves—to succeed Padrón.”

[Virginia Myers]

To sign the petition and support the faculty fighting for a fair presidential selection process at Miami Dade College, click here.