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Universities buck under board's rule

Published February 27, 2004

TAMPA - Two years ago, the state universities were given the responsibility to set budgets, search for presidents and bargain with unions.

But now that a voter-mandated board is exercising its muscle on higher education issues, those schools are chafing.

Three of the schools object to what they describe as the new statewide panel's effort to expand its powers. They have written letters questioning the Board of Governors' authority over them.

"What appears to be happening is an attempt to ... go back to the bureaucratic days of multiple reviews and approvals from Tallahassee," Dick Beard, chairman of the University of South Florida Board of Trustees, wrote in a letter to the Board of Governors.

The conflict could set up a legal showdown between the universities and the board. It may even lead to a refusal by universities to obey the Board of Governors.

Florida State University and the University of Central Florida in Orlando also want to maximize university independence and minimize the role of the Board of Governors in university governance.

The universities have said the Board of Governors should not adopt comprehensive educational objectives, ratify presidential selections or develop guidelines for budgets, among other things.

T.K. Wetherell, FSU president, wrote an e-mail to Department of Education staff this week.

"Congratulations you have just reinstituted the old Board of Regents," he wrote. "Where are the strong roles of the University Boards of Trustees??? Under this arrangement their main role would be to be sure that the meeting lunch menu is well planned."

But Steve Uhlfelder, a Board of Governors member, downplayed the dispute.

"I just think this is much ado about nothing," he said. "All we do is set the guidelines and administer policies. I just think this is growing pains."

The Board of Governors wants the state Legislature to pass a bill this spring outlining the board's powers. But the universities say the board is taking the bill too far.

On Thursday, Debra Austin, the state chancellor for colleges and universities, wrote an e-mail to the Board of Governors to explain the objections to what the board has called surprising opposition to a system that's been debated for more than a year.

"The team of people from various offices who drafted this bill clearly recognized that this was only a first step toward accomplishing the goal of clarifying governance issues and that time was needed to work through some of the more complicated issues of governance," she wrote.

Gov. Jeb Bush created a new higher education governance system two years ago. He abolished the statewide Board of Regents and created trustees at each school. But in November 2002, voters passed a constitutional amendment creating the Board of Governors to establish statewide policy and spend money.

[Last modified February 27, 2004, 03:41:00]

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