When a UCF public relations staffer emailed the private firm paid $150,000 to conduct a fair presidential search a new copy of UCF Provost Dale Whittaker’s application — to fix a typo — Whittaker was quick to put a stop to it.

“I understand my team took the liberty to correct a typo in my letter,” Whittaker said in a follow up email to Parker Executive Search. “I appreciate their concern and enthusiasm, but will be the only one corresponding on my behalf going forward as this is a personal correspondence, not UCF.”

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Knight News asked UCF if it would comment on questions the records raised about the appearance of possible special treatment associated with UCF’s Provost benefiting from high-level UCF public relations staff polishing up his letter and sending it to Parker from a private gmail address — during the middle of the UCF workday.

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UCF responded that the staffer “did so during her lunch break without talking to the candidate, as shown in his subsequent letter to Parker.”

The typo, which was minor, was discovered by a Knight News reader on Twitter.


Knight News fights through UCF’s red tape to obtain and publish public records as part of its mission to educate the public, so the public can have a chance to vet candidates and share opinions on such an important decision, according to attorney Justin Hemlepp, who has successfully represented Knight News in three open government lawsuits against UCF.

While the typo in Whittaker’s application was minor, another issue Knight News discovered from public records was serious. Another candidate for president was fired from his previous post as president amid controversy. It took three weeks and the threat of a fourth lawsuit for UCF to finally release that record just a few days before the search committee narrowed the candidates on Feb. 15.

“When a government agency delays the production of a public record they might as well not give it to us at all,” Hemlepp said, addressing a common complaint among those requesting records from UCF.

Splitting Hairs To Withhold Newsworthy Records?

Another issue faced when requesting records from UCF is disagreement over the scope of the request. For example, Knight News asked UCF for copies of the most recent application, letter of nominations and expression of interests submitted to Parker Executive back on Jan. 22. In response, UCF said it would provide weekly updates by sending “all of the materials received to date” on “each Monday during the application process.”

However, UCF left out the resume of semi-finalist Venu Govindaraju, who expressed interest to Parker in the position by sending his resume back on 1/26. That same day, the candidate told the search firm that “per our [phone] conversation today, I will wait to receive your feedback.”

UCF never provided Govindaraju’s resume during the weekly updates, and only made it public after he was selected as a semi-finalist.

Why?

“A candidate’s submittal of a resume to Parker is not an application for a specific position; the letter for a specific position is,” UCF said, suggesting that the resume didn’t qualify as part of “all of the the materials received to date” UCF agreed to provide on a weekly basis “during the application process.”

Misinformation, Unequal Treatment on Day Committee Narrowed Candidates

On Feb. 14, at 6:44 pm — just hours before the Feb. 15 morning application deadline and search committee meeting to narrow applicants — Govindaraju sent what he called a “letter of intent” to Parker, records show.

UCF sent journalists an email on the morning of Feb. 15, with attachments and files it claimed contained “a list of candidates as of yesterday evening, and . . . applications received through yesterday evening.”

Even though Govindaraju sent his letter of intent the prior evening, neither it nor the resume sent back on Jan. 26 was included.

Knight News asked UCF how the mistake was made, and how the public could have confidence the search is transparent and fair when the public is led to believe it is getting all the information it expects, when it appears UCF is not living up to that promise?

UCF explained that Govindaraju’s “application [letter, rather than resume] was received by Parker after that Dropbox file was compiled.”

Knight News followed up with UCF to see if the Search Committee members were given a copy of the Govindaraju’s application the night he sent it — Wilder with Parker Executive represented to the committee that she’d send materials prior to the meeting on a rolling basis — but UCF has not responded to the follow-up question.

Problems Resulting from Waiting Until the Last Minute, Discussions Held Outside the Sunshine?

Hemlepp was disgusted by the delays and mistakes resulting from the last minute deadline.

“We have heard the complaints of committee members that they might not be given adequate time to review the applications of candidates, so how in the hell would the public have enough time to review the documents?” Hemlepp asked. “That is the point of Florida’s open government laws.”

Hemlepp is referring to the Feb. 5 search committee meeting, where members raised concerns about Wilder’s advice that the Search Committee set the deadline to submit applications the morning of the Feb. 15 meeting where it would narrow candidates, rather than the night before. Though he appeared uneasy, one committee member stated that UCF is paying Wilder a lot of money, so we’ll take her advice in order to avoid missing out on what Wilder referred to as the best candidates — that she says come at the last minute to avoid public scrutiny under Florida’s Sunshine Laws.

What most on the search committee apparently didn’t know was that at least one of those candidates — Govindaraju — had submitted a resume back on Jan. 26 and already was told by Parker Search VP that she thought he was “an extremely viable candidate” because she had already “discussed your background with members of the Board.”

Knight News emailed UCF to find out more about this discussion between a Parker VP and “members of the Board” — to find out if it was done during a public meeting in accordance with Florida’s Sunshine Law.

The Knight News email stated how the Parker Executive VP said in the email records that “she spoke to Board members about one of the candidates, per the records you produced. However, on the Feb. 5 public Committee meeting Laurie Wilder declined to go into any individual detail about candidates. Was there a public meeting we missed where this conversation with Board members took place, or was it held outside the Sunshine?”

UCF did not deny that a meeting was held outside of the Sunshine in its response, however, it did not provide much detail.

“Finally, there were no other search committee meetings,” UCF said.

Another issue that resulted from holding the application deadline until the last minute was a lack of uniformity in information sought among all the candidates.

Parker Executive sent out a list of 6 questions that were put in place to help the search committee learn a little bit more information on the candidates, but only 3 of the candidates received these questions:

1) What do you consider as your top 3-5 higher education leadership accomplishments?

2) After reviewing the position description, please describe specific core strengths you consider valuable to UCF at this particular time in the University’s history

3) Please tell us about your current compensation package. Base Salary? Bonus? 2017-Earnings? Other benefits to include automobile allowance, etc.

4) Do you have any specific compensation requests or expectations?

5) Do you have any specific personal or professional accommodations with which you would require assistance before making a decision concerning this opportunity?

6) Are you currently considering other opportunities that due to timing, prevent you from pursuing this search in its entirety?

Knight News asked UCF why only Dale Whittaker, James Weyhenmeyer, and James Dean received these inquiries. 

UCF explained: “There was no follow-up correspondence with [Akron] President [Matthew] Wilson since he applied for the position as Parker Executive staff were arriving at the meeting.

“Provost Whittaker was the first candidate of all of the semifinalists to submit an application, on Feb. 5. He and the three other candidates who applied before Feb. 12 received the schedule on Feb. 12, and also on that day they received questions that Parker staff use internally to get to know candidates better in advance of the search committee meeting.

“Candidates who applied Feb. 14 or early enough on Feb. 15 also received the schedule. At that point, there was not enough time for Parker staff to send and receive answers to the internal questions before the committee meeting, so the questions were not sent to those candidates.”

Search Committee’s Formation Raised Legal Questions

From the start, Knight News has had to involve lawyers to help push UCF to conduct a transparent search.

In a letter Hemlepp sent UCF Vice President and General Counsel Scott Cole, to distribute to the search committee, Hemlepp warned of red flags he believed could qualify as violations of the Sunshine Law — like UCF trustees offering to meet in a luxury UCF football box to discuss who should serve on the search committee. It’s unclear when or if Cole ever shared the letter with the committee, but he did do a Sunshine Law seminar shortly after the letter was sent.

The state of Florida Board of Governors has laid out regulations that appear aimed at ensuring a transparent search without improper influence from administrators at the host institution. For example, BOG regulations state that “none of the individuals selected to serve on the search committee should hold positions that report directly to the president.”

UCF BOT Chairman Marcos Marchena appointed two UCF vice presidents to “assist” the search committee. Marchena explained in an email to alumni that to “ensure we follow university and state policies for searches, and to provide open and timely communications, I have directed Scott Cole, vice president and General Counsel, and Grant Heston, vice president for Communications and Marketing, to assist the committee and board during the search. To be clear, these are non-voting roles.”

Records UCF released showed that many alumni that replied to that email recommending people to serve on the committee never had their emails received by Marchena prior to his decision. That’s because the email went to an unmonitored address.

The makeup of the Search Committee was critisized by the UCF faculty union representative, Scott Launier, who told the Orlando Sentinel that he was concerned that his colleagues selected for the committee are not part of the bargaining unit, which includes tenure-track and non-tenure-track members, and have more administrative roles.

“In our eyes, there is no true faculty representation on that committee,” he told the Sentinel.

Knight News will live stream the entire interviews the next couple of days. We will also have a condensed recap off all of the interviews on our site at the end of each day.  Stay Tuned.