The fight over a proposed chiropractic school at Florida State University is increasingly politicizing the campus.
By RON MATUS and DAVID KARP
Published January 4, 2005
Faculty members say they are afraid to question the chiropractic school because they fear retribution from either top administrators or the powerful state lawmakers who support it.
The atmosphere is grim, said Marc Freeman, a distinguished research professor in the biology department. "We feel as if something is being shoved down our throats that we don't want."
The growing frustration comes just weeks before votes by FSU's board of trustees and the Florida Board of Governors that could decide the school's fate.
If the school dies, professors should think about the consequences, state Sen. Jim King, an FSU graduate who championed the school, warned Monday.
Legislators may ask FSU to cut millions from its budget next year to pay back the $9-million allocated last year for the chiropractic school.
"I would also suggest that (professors) evaluate with their department heads what kind of cuts there will have to be," said King, R-Jacksonville. If professors derail the chiropractic school, he added, "I think the Legislature would be angry."
In the spring, the Legislature set aside $9-million a year for the chiropractic school. But in recent weeks, hundreds of professors have signed petitions against the idea, angered by the lack of faculty input and egged on by charges from the medical establishment that chiropractic is not grounded in real science. A handful of professors in the fledgling College of Medicine have even threatened to resign.
Now, some faculty members are denouncing the my-way-or-the-highway mentality they say has permeated the debate.
"I've been depressed by the number of people who feel they have no say," said Kent Miller, professor emeritus in psychology. "The message about (the chiropractic school) being a done deal is very real."
Freeman said in 2002, he asked FSU president T.K. Wetherell, then interviewing for the job, what he thought about the chiropractic school.
The former state House speaker told him it was something the Legislature wanted, and that criticism could result in sanctions against FSU, Freeman said.
"The faculty is intimidated by that," Freeman said, noting his department is on the verge of getting a new building. "We have everything to lose.
"I'm happy here, I like this place," Freeman continued. "I just don't want to see it torn apart" by politics.
Wetherell could not be reached for comment Monday, but provost Larry Abele said he could not imagine how the university could retaliate against a professor, even if it wanted to - which it does not.
"There are very few more protected classes than a faculty member at a university," Abele said.
If professors feared for their careers, he said, why would they put their names on the petition opposing the chiropractic school.
"I have been at the Florida State for 30 years, and I have never noticed a reticence on the part of faculty members who disagreed with the university," said Abele, who will formally ask the Board of Governors to approve the school at the end of the month.
J. Stanley Marshall, a former FSU president who sits on the board of trustees, said he's heard indirectly about scared professors. He urged anyone who feels threatened to come forward.
"The university should never be a place where people are not able to speak out on any topic," Marshall said.
"I do not believe the university administration would engage in that activity," he added.
In recent weeks, the chiropractic controversy has taken on a life of its own, so much so that fact and fiction can be difficult to separate.
According to one widely retold story, King tongue-lashed medical school students who confronted him about the chiropractic school.
King said the conversation never happened. He said he won't retaliate against any individual, either, if they help kill the school.
"Would I be disappointed? Yes," King said. "Am I going to be vindictive? No."
He added: "I'm a Scorpio. I'm much more subtle than that."
Dr. Ed Shahady, professor of family medicine and rural health in the College of Medicine, acknowledged that much of the fear comes from "rumor, rumor, rumor." But even rumors can prompt faculty to curb their comments because "you don't want to jeopardize the medical school."
Full-time medical faculty have been quiet about the chiropractic school because they have decided it's a fait accompli, Shahady said. "Did anyone in authority say that to us? No. But that's what we read."
Political interference in academic affairs is exactly what critics feared would happen when the Legislature, encouraged by Gov. Jeb Bush, dismantled the state Board of Regents in 2000.
Bush's right-hand man in that effort, then House Speaker John Thrasher, now chairs the FSU board of trustees.
By overseeing all of the state's universities, the regents prevented the creation of unnecessary programs and suppressed a law-of-the-jungle mentality that pits universities against each other for scarce funding, supporters said. Now a two-tiered system is in place, with the Board of Governors sharing power with trustees at each university, and the governor making all the appointments.
Critics say the new system isn't working. When a group of educators, lawyers and politicians sued the Board of Governors two weeks ago, saying it had failed to use its constitutionally granted powers, the group pointed to the chiropractic school as an example.
Shahady, the medical school professor, said the process for the chiropractic school may turn out to be counterproductive for its supporters. Chiropractic may have its merits, he said, but they won't be heard in the current environment.
"What you're seeing," Shahady said, "is what happens when there's the lack of a forum."