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Board vote ends chiropractic school

FSU's president says there are no plans to resurrect the proposal after it is decisively denied by the state Board of Governors.

Published January 28, 2005

Rejection saddens college's promoter

GAINESVILLE - The Florida State University chiropractic school is dead.

The state Board of Governors voted 10-3 Thursday to kill it, defying powerful state lawmakers and for the first time fully exercising the board's constitutional power to oversee Florida universities.

"This was a big day," board Chairwoman Carolyn Roberts said after the vote, which came after weeks of high-stakes political drama.

Legislative leaders created the school for FSU last spring, with little comment from rank-and-file members, no input from FSU faculty and complete disregard for the 2002 constitutional amendment that created the Board of Governors. It would have been the first public chiropractic school in the country.

But in recent weeks, the $60-million proposal garnered unflattering national attention and became a defining point in the battle for control of Florida's university system. Hundreds of FSU professors signed petitions against the school, worried that any link to chiropractic's more controversial tenets would doom FSU's academic reputation.

"It was a lousy proposal from the beginning," said Ray Bellamy, a Tallahassee orthopedist and assistant FSU professor who led the opposition.

Legislative fallout remains to be seen. But FSU president T.K. Wetherell said the university had no plans to file suit against the board, or to resurrect the chiropractic proposal in any way.

"I'm not going to bring it back," he said.

Sen. Jim King, R-Jacksonville, who used his clout as Senate president last year to steer $9-million to the school, partly as a favor to his longtime friend, Sen. Dennis Jones, R-Treasure Island, said he was "greatly disappointed" but not surprised.

One of King's biggest regrets is how political the issue became. "If you were to say what the iceberg was that hit this Titanic, it was that we got into a muscle war with the Board of Governors," he said.

Jones, a chiropractor and the school's biggest political champion, said millions of dollars in federal research money that could have been FSU's will now end up elsewhere.

But the big losers, he said, are students, especially African-Americans and Hispanics, who can't afford the cost of attending an out-of-state chiropractic school.

Jones' dream traveled a long road to its demise.

Last spring, the Florida Chiropractic Association celebrated in FSU's Doak Campbell Stadium after the Legislature agreed to give the school $9-million a year in perpetuity. Cheerleaders smiled. FSU coach Bobby Bowden signed footballs. In November, FSU began advertising for a new dean.

Then, prodded by Bellamy, what had seemed inevitable became a political hot potato. After one professor created a parody map of campus, putting the chiropractic school near an Alien Autopsy Lab, it circulated on the Internet and got picked up by Science magazine. Even Senate President Tom Lee took a shot, telling members of the Tallahassee Tiger Bay Club on Wednesday that as his legacy, he wanted to establish a Halitosis Research Center at the University of South Florida.

The Board of Governors heard enough.

Guided by Gov. Jeb Bush's comments last week to "vote their consciences," members described the school as unnecessary and a potential financial drain on one of the fastest-growing university systems in the country. A staff report to the board noted that Florida has more chiropractors per capita than the national average and that a just-opened private chiropractic school in Volusia County would generate more chiropractors per year than the state needs.

"We have got to become very judicious about what we do with limited resources," said board member Lynn Pappas.

Members Ava Parker, Gerri Moll and Jarrett Eady - the FSU student body president - voted for the school.

Parker and Moll said the Board of Governors should refrain from a decision until the proposal went through normal review channels, which would include vetting by FSU faculty.

FSU trustees made a similar argument two weeks ago when they dodged an up-or-down vote and instead asked the board for more time. On Thursday, FSU administrators conceded that the normal process for creation of a new program had been turned on its head for the chiropractic school.

They portrayed themselves as victims of political cross currents.

"Our board is attempting to follow your guidance as well as a legislative mandate signed by the governor," Wetherell told the board. "There is some conflict built into this, not of our doing."

Critics say that was inevitable given a top-down process that dripped with pork barrel politics.

One of the chiropractic school's main supporters, King, is an FSU graduate; another, Jones, is a chiropractor who wants to work at the school. Both Wetherell and FSU's most recent trustees chairman, John Thrasher, are former state House speakers. And the legislative deal that spawned the school was struck between King and then-House Speaker Johnny Byrd, who, in return, got an Alzheimer's research center at the University of South Florida.

Despite the players involved, Roberts, the board chairwoman, said she did not anticipate legislative reprisals. When asked the same question, Wetherell shrugged.

"We're told none of that will happen," he said.

The Board of Governors had a lot on the line Thursday. The constitutional amendment that established the board in 2002 was pushed by then-U.S. Sen. Bob Graham and higher education allies who believed it would minimize political meddling in the state university system. But the boundaries between the board, the Legislature and trustees at each university have remained fuzzy.

In May, the board backed down when asked to challenge the chiropractic school, prompting widespread concern and a lawsuit that accused it of ceding too much power. The board reversed course on the school in November, setting the stage for Thursday's showdown, but doubts remained.

An editorial cartoon in Thursday's Gainesville Sun, for example, depicted a hunched-over "Board of Governors" as a patient in a chiropractor's office. "Manipulating this guy should be easy," the chiropractor thinks to himself. "He doesn't have a spine."

After Thursday's vote, E.T. York, the former state university system chancellor who filed the suit against the Board of Governors, commended the board.

"It's a great day for higher education in Florida," he said. "It's a great day for the Florida Constitution."

But York said the decision doesn't nullify the need for the lawsuit. In other cases, such as the selection of university presidents, the board still has given too much authority to trustees and needs to regain its power, he said.

Chiropractors also were big losers Thursday.

The FSU school would have conferred a new level of credibility on a profession that many medical doctors still view as quackery. Chiropractors have made several attempts to establish ties with traditional colleges, including at least one previous effort in Florida.

Earlier this week, Lance Armstrong, the president of the Florida Chiropractic Association, said if the FSU proposal goes down, chiropractors will continue shopping around.

"I'm a Knight," said Armstrong, referring to his alma mater, the University of Central Florida. "I'd like to know if they're interested."

UCF president John Hitt gave him a firm answer Thursday:


Times staff writers Lucy Morgan, Alisa Ulferts and David Karp contributed to this report. Ron Matus can be reached at 727 893-8330 or

[Last modified January 28, 2005, 05:18:25]

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