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    A Times Editorial

    Open higher education meetings

    © St. Petersburg Times
    published February 17, 2002

    With no Board of Regents around to coordinate higher education issues and referee disputes among Florida's state universities, it makes sense for the presidents of these institutions and the chairs of their new trustee boards to want to communicate with each other regularly. But our education leaders should not take the state's restructuring of higher education governance as a green light to move from the sunshine into the shadows. From tuition increases to curriculum and staffing issues, the concerns of university presidents and trustees affect statewide policy, and the public should be invited into those discussions and meetings.

    In years past when university presidents met under the formal title of Council of Presidents, agendas were announced in advance and meetings were open to the public in accordance with the state's Sunshine Laws. Since the abolition of the Board of Regents, the presidents still have been communicating collectively but in a way that has excluded the public.

    Last month, the presidents held a private conference call with universities Chancellor Carl Blackwell to discuss the education budget proposed by Gov. Jeb Bush. The very next day, the chairs of the universities' boards of trustees met face-to-face with officials from the state Board of Education in a closed meeting at the Orlando airport.

    Florida's open meetings law is vague about the responsibility of university presidents and trustees -- representatives of distinct entities -- to grant the public access to their group meetings. The question the law asks is whether these representatives form a public body, one purpose of which is to advise decisionmakers. We believe so. Together, these public officials confer on and resolve fundamental education issues, and their recommendations will be brought back for action by the various boards of trustees.

    Because the question lingers, the Legislature should clarify the law. Legislation is being drafted that would explicitly place meetings of university presidents and trustees under Florida's open meetings law.

    The proposal is being championed by Rep. Doug Wiles, D-St. Augustine, who successfully persuaded Rep. Jerry Melvin, R-Fort Walton Beach, chairman of the House Council for Lifelong Learning, to bring the idea before the council for debate. Prospects for including the change in the rewrite of the school code, however, don't look promising. In a state with a national reputation for open government, too many legislators seem loath to embrace the idea.

    One of Floridians' top public policy concerns is the quality of system of higher learning. As education-related issues are being debated and decided by institutional leaders, the public should not be left to wonder what was said and done.

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