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Suit challenges capital's control of universities
A lawsuit filed against Gov. Bush and lawmakers is the latest step in a fight for oversight of the university system.
By RON MATUS and JONI JAMES
Published December 22, 2004
TALLAHASSEE - The long-anticipated fight over who should oversee Florida universities took shape Tuesday when a group of lawyers and educators filed a lawsuit charging Gov. Bush and the Legislature with violating the state Constitution.
The suit, filed in a Leon County circuit court, was spurred by the Legislature's decision this year to spend millions on an Alzheimer's research center at the University of South Florida and a chiropractic school at Florida State University.
But it also is the latest move in a high-stakes dispute over how Florida's university system should be run and who should do it.
At issue is whether the voter-approved Board of Governors has sole authority to set tuition, authorize new academic programs and prioritize university spending statewide.
The plaintiffs are asking the court to clarify the board's powers, hoping it will empower the Board of Governors to act independently and force lawmakers to back off.
"We're not here to talk about a new governance system. We have in place an excellent government system," said E.T. York, a former state university system chancellor who helped lead the 2002 ballot drive that created the Board of Governors.
"What we need to do is implement what we have in place. That's the problem. It's not being implemented appropriately," York said.
The suit was filed by a group called Floridians for Constitutional Integrity, whose members include a former Florida House speaker, a former general counsel to Gov. Lawton Chiles and two university professors.
The Board of Governors and state Board of Education are named as defendants.
Bush downplayed the lawsuit Tuesday, saying his office has never discounted the Board of Governors' authority. He also argued that the board, when it reviews the chiropractic school in January, could fail to approve it, effectively killing the school.
"The Board of Governors has powers imbedded in the Constitution that are significant," said Bush, who appoints all of the board members. But he said there is nothing requiring them to act on their powers, or to prevent them from delegating them to another body.
The battle for control has been brewing since 2000, when lawmakers - with Bush's approval - eliminated the state Board of Regents. The board, which had run Florida universities for decades, sealed its fate when it rejected then-House Speaker John Thrasher's bid to build a medical school at FSU, Thrasher's alma mater.
Lawmakers replaced the Regents with individual boards of trustees at each university. Supporters said the change would give schools more control over their destinies and update a system that had favored the flagship University of Florida over other schools.
But critics predicted the every-school-for-itself structure would undermine the system as a whole and waste taxpayers' money as schools raced after high-profile programs such as law schools and medical colleges.
That prospect led U.S. Sen. Bob Graham to push the citizens' initiative that created the Board of Governors. The amendment, which received 61 percent of the vote, left individual boards of trustees in place, but put more power in the hands of the new board. The idea was to balance interests statewide and deflect political interference.
York and others say that's not what happened.
Exhibit A in their case: the FSU chiropractic school.
Lawmakers led by Sen. Dennis Jones, R-Treasure Island, and then-Senate President Jim King, R-Jacksonville, approved funding for the project last spring. They also approved a measure giving $9-million to the chiropractic school and $15-million to the Alzheimer's center every year in perpetuity. The center was the pet project of then-House Speaker Johnnie Byrd, R-Plant City.
The Board of Governors did not consider either project. Neither did the university boards of trustees.
Now the chiropractic school, in particular, is drawing disdain from the greater medical community, which calls chiropractic a pseudoscience. It would be the first publicly financed school of its kind in the nation.
"Florida's universities must be protected from political appointments and pork barrel politics," York said Tuesday. "The result of such politicization ... has tarnished the reputation and academic standing of Florida's higher education system."
But there may have been other dynamics in play Tuesday.
Some people fear that without a strong, central board, established universities such as UF will lose ground to younger upstarts in urban areas, including USF. Their thinking is that urban universities will be able to rely on powerful legislative delegations to steer big-ticket projects their way.
The group behind Tuesday's lawsuit has a heavy UF tilt. Besides York, a former UF interim president, the plaintiffs include Jon Mills, a former state House speaker and former dean of the UF law school; Dexter Douglass, a UF law school graduate and former general counsel to Gov. Chiles; and E. Thom Rumberger, a UF law school graduate and prominent Republican attorney.
"Isn't it interesting," King asked, "that the main thrust of this new-named group is made up entirely of major, heavy-hitter University of Florida Gators?"
King said the chiropractic school was in the works long before the Board of Governors was formed. He agreed the universities and Board of Governors should work together on projects.
"But I feel put upon that what had been decided ... is being questioned way after the fact," he said. "If we're going to get along, let's get along prospectively."
King warned the lawsuit could backfire, noting that the Legislature controls the university system's purse strings.
"All you have left over when a suit is decided," he said, "is hard feelings."
Ironically, Tuesday's filing comes just as the Board of Governors appears to be taking baby steps toward asserting its power.
Last month, the board voted unanimously to require FSU to get board approval before the university proceeds with the chiropractic school. The board also received an opinion from its legal team that said the board, not the Legislature, has constitutional authority to set tuition - an opinion that rattled lawmakers who have long exercised that power.
"I recognize their intent," said Board of Governors chairwoman Carolyn Roberts, referring to the group behind Tuesday's suit. "But in my opinion, we've made great progress in fully implementing the constitutional amendment."
"Are we there yet? I don't know if we're there yet," she said. "But we're becoming more engaged with each meeting."
In 2002, 61 percent of Florida voters approved a constitutional amendment that restructured Florida's system of higher education governance. Here is the summary language that appeared on the ballot:
"A local board of trustees shall administer each state university. Each board shall have thirteen members dedicated to excellence in teaching, research and service to community. A statewide governing board of seventeen members shall be responsible for the coordinated and accountable operation of the whole university system. Wasteful duplication of facilities or programs is to be avoided. Provides procedures for selection and confirmation of board members, including one student and one faculty representative per board."