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© St. Petersburg Times, published October 4, 2002
No state, and certainly no state in the South, can become great or remain great without a strong, independent state university system.
Florida no longer has one.
Florida has replaced any semblance of independence with pure politics. We are suffering for it already. It will only get worse.
It was bad enough that for many years the Florida Legislature nit-picked and hen-pecked and micromanaged the previous system, under a weak Board of Regents.
Senators came to fancy themselves as "experts" on higher education. Each senator knew best which programs should be offered, which research should be conducted and which campus should get what.
Bad enough. But in the end, the Legislature -- with the help of a new, change-the-world governor in Jeb Bush -- decided to kill the Board of Regents entirely.
Florida's universities would henceforth be run directly by politicians and political appointees. That is the "system" we have today.
Each university is run by its own 13-member board picked by the governor. In theory, these universities also report to a "seamless" state Board of Education that is run by -- who else? -- a well-paid former state senator. In practice, it is impossible to run such a "system" coherently and selflessly.
Here in the Tampa Bay area, our University of South Florida is run by a local board with a chairman named Dick Beard, a fine man, a Republican fundraiser, a supporter of the governor and, by profession, a builder of large buildings. One of his current activities is attempting to bring the 2004 Republican National Convention to Tampa.
None of that qualifies him in any way to administer a mighty research-level university. And yet, with a weak university administration, it is Dick Beard who is deciding the fate of tenured professors, Dick Beard deciding which heads will roll when politics (or bad publicity, or fundraising troubles) require. It is Dick Beard at lunch, Dick Beard at tete-a-tetes, Dick Beard speaking privately and publicly for the school.
Now, repeat this scenario a dozen times across the state. Look at the hired help, the presidents of our universities. They are lined up in support of this sorry system. They are a row of nodding, bobblehead dolls.
They have various motives.
Some of them reckon that their own school will do better in the Legislature without a pesky old Board of Regents allocating resources. Some of them are politically weak. Some are currying favor.
Some of them are tired. Notice that simultaneously, the presidents of the University of Florida in Gainesville and Florida State University in Tallahassee are retiring.
This is a calamity at the flagship level. It is extremely unlikely we can replace them with leaders of comparable stature -- in FSU's Sandy D'Alemberte, a former president of the American Bar Association, and in UF's Chuck Young, the former chancellor of UCLA.
Remember, we failed the last time we had to hire a president in Gainesville (even without needing to fill Tallahassee at the same time). All the finalists pulled out, amid the political uncertainty. We got the interim guy, Young, to stay on. In our current environment, do you think this is going to get better?
There is a way to begin to undo this.
There is a constitutional amendment on the November ballot. It is backed by U.S. Sen. Bob Graham, who used to be governor, and a pretty fair one when it came to education.
Graham's amendment would create a new, independent Board of Governors to run Florida's university system.
Certainly, we will never be able to take all the politics out of higher education. Even if the amendment passed, it would take years to build a new tradition of independence.
But in any halfway decent state, a politician with the itch to meddle with the public's university ought to feel a little fear, feel a little risk, feel the danger of a citizen backlash.
Here, instead, politicians meddle for sport. For sport, and for testosterone.
The future of Florida is on the table. If you don't give a damn, then stick with what we've got. Our current crop of politicians and weaklings will slap each other on the back in congratulations at keeping their fiefdoms. And we will all slide merrily together down the slope.