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Challenge: A university chancellor with teeth

Published August 18, 2005

The next chancellor of Florida's state university system ought to be a powerhouse.

Our next chancellor ought to be a star, a force to be reckoned with, whose pronouncements carry weight and make news.

Our next chancellor ought to be able to stand up to the Legislature and yet, at the same time, smooth-talk and mollify its members.

Our next chancellor needs to wield a strong hand with Florida's individual state universities, yet at the same time convince them that their needs and merits are appreciated.

Our next chancellor ought to be a strong chief executive, comfortable in the role of "mayor" or "governor" of our university system.

Our next chancellor ought to occupy a strong position vis-a-vis the university system's Board of Governors. Over time, the governors should be guided by the chancellor's recommendations, expertise and institutional memory.

Let me borrow the words of J. Stanley Marshall, a former president of Florida State University, an advocate of a strong chancellor who wants a well-considered selection process:

"This is the most important position in higher education in Florida - which makes it one of the most important positions in higher education in the United States."

To be blunt, I question whether the state of Florida is up to the challenge.

Remember that Gov. Jeb Bush and our state Legislature have not been in favor of a strong, independent state university system. Remember that they even abolished the old Board of Regents and replaced it with individual boards of trustees (picked by the governor) at each school.

The voters reversed that wacky decision in the 2002 election and passed a constitutional amendment for an independent university Board of Governors.

You can lead a governor to water, but you can't make him drink. Jeb named his Board of Governors, but his appointees have not exactly rushed out to take over. The Bush-flavored board has been, at times ... indifferent.

Can you even name the current chancellor of Florida's state universities? Debra Austin. She was in the news just the other day - because she's quitting. She's going to Florida A&M University.

Because Austin was more or less chosen by the previous bureaucracy, this now becomes the Board of Governors' first chance at setting its own course when it comes to a chancellor.

Rumors and conflicting speculation abound as to what direction the governors will take. The process seems to be driven by the Bush appointee who serves as the board's chairman, Carolyn Roberts. Even this seat-of-the-pants feel to the process does not befit a major state and a major university system.

It can't be a quick hire. It can't be just one more bureaucrat whose job is to parrot weakly the party line.

Neither can it be some state senator looking for a job. Not some politician or Bush hanger-on.

It probably shouldn't even be one of the current presidents of the individual schools, although some of them are interesting. I do kinda like the motorcycle-riding Bernie Machen in Gainesville. And despite everything I just said about politicians, I still kinda like the ex-jock, ex-legislator T.K. Wetherell in Tallahassee.

If this were a first-class state with a first-class university system, the only possible process would be a big-deal, formal national search. It would be the kind of search that made other great universities around the country worry about holding onto their talent.

I live with the hope that one day, Florida will have that first-class university system, because we will never be a first-class state without it. And we don't have it yet, no matter how many slogans we chant or how many college football games we win (and we're not even quite as good at that anymore).

The choice of a new chancellor is a chance to get a head start on the future - or to lose yet even more time to what has been a drifting, odd indifference.

[Last modified August 18, 2005, 01:04:14]

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