College board delegates its powers
By ANITA KUMAR, Times Staff Writer
The new statewide board created to oversee Florida's public universities is not what U.S. Sen. Bob Graham imagined when he persuaded voters to approve it last fall.
The Board of Governors has refused much of the power voters handed it in November, leaving the board with little to do.
It delegated crucial decisions to individual universities, continuing Gov. Jeb Bush's philosophy of local control, despite a ballot initiative that was supposed to create a strong statewide system of governance.
The disappointed supporters of the constitutional amendment are watching the board closely, hoping for real change but threatening a legal challenge if there isn't any.
"The people voted for this overwhelmingly, and yet the governor and his people are thumbing their noses at this," said E.T. York, former chancellor of the Florida university system and former interim University of Florida president. "It's clear they don't want to change anything."
The Board of Governors was given the power to create graduate programs, set presidential compensation packages and bargain with unions. But at its first meeting earlier this month, the group chose to let trustees at individual schools take on those issues and others.
The board, which has the authority to set tuition, is allowing the state Legislature to do that when it meets in March. That's the way it's always been done.
"The way they are operating, I don't see where they come into play at all," said Buddy Shorstein, Graham's longtime adviser and former chief of staff.
The Board of Governors asked Bush's education leaders -- Education Commissioner Jim Horne and Board of Education Chairman Phil Handy -- to help it out with a staff and a budget.
"Just because you pass an amendment doesn't mean it changes things," said Steve Uhlfelder, a Tallahassee lawyer and Board of Governors member. "Just because you have power, doesn't mean you use it."
Uhlfelder said he doesn't want the board to micromanage the schools. But he does want it to address some statewide issues, such as measuring how the schools are performing. In Bush's first term, he and the Republican-led Legislature abolished the Board of Regents, which oversaw the universities, and gave its authority to the Board of Education, a new group responsible for all state education.
But voters in November created the state's third higher education governance structure in two years when they overwhelmingly passed Graham's proposal to create a board to oversee 260,000 students at 11 public universities.
The Board of Governors is supposed to establish statewide policy and spend money while trustees oversee individual universities. Instead, Horne continues to tackle higher education issues and the Board of Education makes decisions on behalf of the universities.
For example, that board -- not the governors -- is searching for Florida's new chancellor for colleges and universities.
"They can talk about things all they want but I think the Constitution speaks louder," said Charlie Reed, a former state chancellor and one of Graham's closest friends. "People voted for it."
Horne acknowledges that the new system is similar to the old one despite the amendment, and said it's because people supported Bush's seamless plan that streamlined education from kindergarten to postgraduate studies.
"They're entitled to their opinions," Horne said of Graham's supporters. "But there is continued support for the K-20 system. The governor is the governor and he was elected by a huge mandate. His system is working."
Some Board of Governors members say it's too early to tell what will happen.
"I'm still trying to see what we need to do," said Castell Bryant, president of Miami-Dade Community College, north campus.
Graham, who underwent heart surgery last week and could not be reached, met with Bush in Tallahassee after the amendment passed to ask him for help in implementing the system.
"As much as we'd like to offer suggestions, they're not welcome," said Joan Ruffier, who helped run the amendment campaign and is a former member of the Board of Regents. "But if they continue to let the universities do their own thing, there is going to be chaos."
Bush, who had the responsibility to appoint most of the Board of Governors members and half the trustees, filled the boards with his own supporters who opposed Graham's proposal.
"I don't want to contradict the governor in any way, shape or form," said Zachariah P. Zachariah, a high-profile Fort Lauderdale cardiologist. "What he wants is what I want." Pablo Paez, Florida Student Association chairman and a member of the Board of Governors, said he prefers that local boards make important decisions because they know the campuses. "They are in better touch with the students," he said.
Amendment supporters hope that after the Board of Governors members receive the required confirmation by the state Senate they will be more independent.
"They're going to have to comply," said Robin Gibson, a lawyer who wrote the ballot language language for the initiative.
-- Times researcher Cathy Wos contributed to this report.
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