Is a Secret Search Underway for Miami Dade College's Next President?

Miami Dade College students feel as if they're being forced to choose between their health and their grades.
Miami Dade College students feel as if they're being forced to choose between their health and their grades. Photo by Phillip Pessar / Flickr
After an arduous 18-month search for a new president, Miami Dade College has set a deadline of November 17 to select a future leader. 

But the largest community college in the country is accepting résumés up until a decision is made, something experts say could keep the public in the dark about the process.

"This could lead to getting a candidate at the last minute that you know nothing about," says Judith Wilde, a professor at George Mason University's Schar School of Policy and Government. "You get a drum roll, and at the end, here is your new president."

The application guidelines published by Miami Dade College say that "for best consideration, application materials should be received by October 23, 2020." But right above that, the college states that the search committee "is reviewing applications and will continue until the position is filled."

According to Wilde, that means someone could apply as late as November 17 and still get the job. She says the application deadline could be a way of getting around the Florida Sunshine Law, a series of provisions that guarantee the public's right to know and allows citizens to scrutinize government goings-on.

The new Miami Dade College president will replace Rolando Montoya, who has been serving as interim president since Eduardo J. Padrón retired in August 2019. A public-records request by New Times seeking the current list of applicants is under review by the college's attorneys.

Five days after the October 23 priority deadline, the applicant pool will be shaved to ten semifinalists, leading to early-November interviews, according to the college.

Wilde, one of the nation's leading experts on secret searches for presidents in higher ed, says Board of Trustees' members often serve short terms, have no experience with presidential searches, and cede the process to private firms.

Miami Dade College is taking precisely that route, utilizing the Washington, D.C.-based AGB Search to take the lead.

When New Times asked why the college is accepting applications up until a vote takes place, college spokesperson Juan Mendieta referred questions to AGB, which did not respond to an email.

Mendieta said it's standard for all major companies, institutions, and organizations to utilize a private search firm.

"All major recruitments at the highest level require a search firm," Mendieta said in an email. "All institutions and companies use them to facilitate the process, assist the screening committee and leadership, handle finalists' vetting, etc."

Miami Dade College attorneys are still reviewing New Times' request for financial documents showing how much money has been spent on the search thus far.

Miami Dade College is a conglomerate with one high-ranking president, known as the college president. The eight campuses scattered around the county also have their own leadership structures and presidents.

A 40-year longitudinal study shows that in the fiscal year 1975, only 2 percent of higher-ed presidential searches relied on search firms. By the 2015 fiscal year, search firms were involved in 92 percent of presidential searches, according to Wilde.

"Search firms come in like knights in shining armor and at the end leave things a bit tarnished," Wilde says.

It draws the shades on transparency, Wilde explains, because private search firms don't have to comply with public-records laws, so the public institution might make it so that résumés and other pertinent information could be withheld from the public.

Winners include the person who gets the job while avoiding public scrutiny and the search firm collecting its fees at taxpayers' expense, Wilde says.

In the case of Miami Dade College, the prolonged and costly presidential search has drawn the ire of local politicians, as three fed-up mayors demanded the college hire a new president at its August 29, 2019 meeting — nearly a year ago.

"Our constituents are outraged and skeptical about the latest turn of events," wrote Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Giménez, Miami Beach Mayor Dan Gelber, and Coral Gables Mayor Raúl Valdés-Fauli. "We implore the members of the Board of Trustees to do the right thing and without further delay select a new president for Miami Dade College when they reconvene Aug. 29."

This past March, Sunshine Law advocates descended on the Florida Capitol to oppose Senate Bill 774, sponsored by Senate Education Committee chairman Manny Diaz of Hialeah. The bill would shield state college president searches from public scrutiny.

SB 774 was tabled that same month. An email to Diaz from New Times seeking a status update on the bill was not returned.

A similar bill in the Florida House, HB 7081, also was withdrawn in March. It aimed to exempt personal information about presidential applicants for state universities.

Pamela Marsh, president of the Tallahassee-based First Amendment Foundation, expressed concerns as SB 774 sailed through the legislature.

"There is no reason to believe that a secret search for a university president will produce better candidates," Marsh wrote in a Miami Herald op-ed in February. "In fact, there is evidence that secrecy results in promoting well-connected insiders, excluding qualified women, people of color, and other groups that are underrepresented in leadership positions."

Regardless of who gets tapped on November 17, they can expect to make a lot of money. Documents obtained by New Times show that the nine presidents at Miami Dade College earn solid six-figure compensation packages when you figure in the value of benefits like bonuses, medical and dental insurance, and retirement plans.

Interim president Montoya's total compensation is $400,000, according to the college. Padrón, who stepped down last year and in 2016 was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama, continues to be paid total compensation of $602,567, records show. (Retired college presidents, known as presidents emeritus, often continue to draw a salary after stepping down, Wilde says.)

For comparison, the president of the United States' total compensation package is $450,000, according to the U.S. Code.

The next leader of Miami Dade College will rule over college operations, as well as the other presidents, who rule over mini campus fiefdoms. Each draws a sizable compensation package, records show:
  • Anthony Cruz, Hialeah: $203,000
  • Beatriz Gonzales, Wolfson: $203,000
  • Gregory Stewart, Medical: $206,500
  • Pascale Charlot, Kendall: $206,700
  • Beverly Moore-Garcia, West: $210,585
  • Malou Harrison, North and Padron: $224,437
  • Jeanne Jacobs, Homestead: $228,727
Florida law dictates that the state college system's presidents may not receive "more than $200,000 in remuneration from appropriated state funds." Salaries that exceed that amount pull from other sources, including student fees.

New Times reported last year that 81 percent of Miami Dade College professors are part-time adjuncts and earn no more than $22,000.

Owing to social distancing protocols, Miami Dade College is now broadcasting its Board of Trustees' meetings online. The next meeting takes place at 8 a.m. on Tuesday, July 21.
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Freelancer Theo Karantsalis is a San Francisco native who lovingly served Miami’s Black community for many years as an offbeat librarian. He speaks softly and carries a big pen.
Contact: Theo Karantsalis