FSU's trustees ask the state Board of Governors to decide if the university can continue pursuing a chiropractic school.
By RON MATUS, Times Staff Writer
Published January 15, 2005
TALLAHASSEE - The state Board of Governors will decide the fate of Florida State University's proposed chiropractic school in two weeks. But they'll do so without clear direction from the university.
The FSU Board of Trustees dodged an up-or-down decision on the school Friday, instead voting 11-2 to ask the Board of Governors if FSU can continue investigating the school by forwarding it to faculty for a full-blown review.
The vote followed mounting pressure from powerful state lawmakers who support it and medical doctors and FSU faculty who don't. It also came after the chairwoman of the Board of Governors, Carolyn Roberts, made it clear that she expected FSU to make a decision about the school before kicking it up to the board, which oversees the state university system.
"We're between these two constitutional bodies," said Board of Trustees chairman John Thrasher, referring to the board and the Legislature.
Dr. Raymond Bellamy, an orthopedist and FSU professor who has led opposition to the chiropractic school, called the trustees' decision "cowardly."
"They figured out a way to say (to the Board of Governors), "It's up to you guys,' " Bellamy said after the vote. "Is that courageous? Isn't it their job to be stewards of our university?"
Bellamy said the trustees should have killed the school themselves, and several trustees were inclined to move in that direction. Instead, he said, they have postponed the execution, given the outright hostility of many faculty members and critical comments from the Board of Governors.
Board of Governors member Steve Uhlfelder suggested Bellamy might be right.
"With this weak a recommendation, it would be hard to approve it," Uhlfelder said. "How much longer can we fool with it?"
Huge stakes underpinned Friday's drama. The $60-million chiropractic school would be the first of its kind in the nation, bringing unprecedented credibility to a profession that serves 15-million people a year but is still looked down upon by many medical doctors. FSU officials said they are seeking to develop a reformist chiropractic school that would develop "evidence-based treatments" and reject some of chiropractic's more controversial tenets.
But critics say the school could cripple FSU's academic reputation.
Unlike most new university programs, the plan for a chiropractic school didn't bubble up from grass-roots channels, with faculty members proposing and pushing the idea. Instead, the Legislature, led by state Sen. Jim King, an FSU graduate, secured $9-million a year for the school last spring.
The school had an aura of inevitability until a few weeks ago, with FSU hiring a new administrator to oversee planning and even posting ads for a dean in the Chronicle of Higher Education. Then opposition reached critical mass. Hundreds of FSU professors signed petitions and a handful in the fledgling medical school threatened to resign. Jokes circulated on the Internet about a Bigfoot Institute being next.
Meanwhile, the trustees have been bombarded from all sides.
Last week, King publicly warned the school's critics that there might be budgetary consequences should the school be shot down. Friday, opponents fired back, taking out a full-page advertisement in the Tallahassee Democrat urging trustees to do exactly that.
The ad was signed by 29 of FSU's most distinguished faculty, including two Nobel laureates and professors of law, English, physics, chemistry, mathematics, biology and religion.
Even Gov. Jeb Bush expressed interest, phoning Thrasher in the middle of Friday's meeting.
Thrasher said Bush called to congratulate him after FSU on Friday named its new medical school building after him. He said the governor did not give him advice on what the board should do.
Trustees vice chairman Jim Smith said Bush also phoned him Friday morning.
The governor "was frankly interested in what's going on," he said.
FSU faculty members have been critical of the politicized atmosphere that has enveloped the debate. Bellamy made a reference to that Friday when he addressed the trustees, holding up a photograph of his late grandfather, a longtime FSU professor who has a building named for him on campus.
"In those days," he said in a dig at Thrasher, "buildings were named after great educators."
Several trustees were critical of the chiropractic school, saying they feared harm to FSU's reputation. Critics have tried to highlight the controversial positions of some chiropractors, who say spinal manipulation can treat many illnesses, including diabetes and heart disease.
"It could be a detriment to our medical school," said trustee Jessie Furlow, a medical doctor. Before pursuing a chiropractic school, she said, FSU needs to "make sure the medical school is established and on its way."
In the end, only two trustees voted against the resolution: Manny Garcia, a Central Florida businessman, and Stanley Marshall, a former FSU president.
Those supporting it said they wanted more direction from the Board of Governors before subjecting faculty to an exhaustive review. If the board has already made up its mind to kill the school, then "it doesn't seem to be an efficient use of state resources and human time" to do a review, said FSU provost Larry Abele.
A faculty review could take 18 months or more, Abele said. After that, the issue could again be before the trustees and, if they approve it, again be sent to the Board of Governors.
Several trustees said they backed the motion because they were confused about what exactly the Board of Governors wanted.
In November, the board passed a resolution that said "FSU could not proceed with the chiropractic school or start that program until a proposal for the school was brought to this Board." But on Thursday, Roberts, the board's chairwoman, sent a letter to Thrasher that said FSU needed to take a position on the program before forwarding it.
Thrasher said those positions were inconsistent.
Even aside from interpreting the board's wishes, trustees said they were frustrated by an approval process that has become nothing if not chaotic.
"This was handed to us in an upside down way," said Smith, a former state attorney general and secretary of state, "in a way that I hope we don't see again in the future."
Times staff writer Lucy Morgan contributed to this report. Ron Matus can be reached at 727 893-8873 or firstname.lastname@example.org