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One Florida drew protests early in Bush's tenure

By SHANNON COLAVECCHIO-VAN SICKLER
Published December 31, 2006


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Florida's universities and community colleges got a lot from Jeb Bush's final months as governor.

He dedicated $11.5-million for scholarships to help first-generation college students and set aside more than $80-million to improve faculty and research programs.

He helped lure four California research firms that are now doing work with Florida universities. Among them is SRI International, which recently announced a partnership with the University of South Florida to develop high-tech marine science products.

Mark Rosenberg, chancellor of the state university system, called Bush's first-generation matching grants "a watershed."

"To begin to send the message that our university system is open to all walks of life is so important," Rosenberg said.

But Bush's most significant mark on Florida's higher education system came early in his eight-year tenure, with a controversial plan that critics predicted would shut out minorities.

The plan, dubbed "One Florida," replaced race and gender preferences in college admissions with outreach programs. It ordered universities to consider an applicant's economic status and geographic location instead of color and sex.

Bush said the elimination of racial and gender preferences would "unite us, not divide us." But many black students and leaders denounced the plan.

Two black state senators staged a sit-in outside his office. In February 2000, about 1,000 students from Florida A&M University, the state's only historically black public university, marched into the Capitol and demanded a meeting with Bush.

The following month, an estimated 11,000 protesters showed up during Bush's State of the State address. The protesters included the Rev. Jesse Jackson, then-NAACP President Kweisi Mfume and Martin Luther King III.

In a recent interview, Bush said his plan helped Florida avoid a divisive battle over a constitutional amendment to ban affirmative action, and noted that black enrollment has not dropped as steeply as critics predicted.

"It has worked," Bush said. "It has forced the universities to take the harder route, to reach down and to identify aspiring students and work with high schools to develop them."

It's true that the number of black students enrolled in Florida universities is up by 22 percent, from 33,000 in fall 1999 to more than 40,400 this fall.

But as a percentage of overall enrollment, black students now constitute less of the student body - 13.8 percent compared with 14.4 percent in fall 1999.

Hispanic enrollment, meanwhile, has exploded.

The number of Hispanics in Florida's 11 universities grew from almost 33,000 in fall 1999 to more than 49,000 this fall. That's a 51 percent increase. Hispanic students now constitute 17 percent of the student body.

Bush said he doesn't regret establishing One Florida: "We don't have one low criteria for one race at the expense of another. That, I think, is the morally right position."

But he said he does wish the plan had unfolded differently.

"I regret that the One Florida initiative, which has yielded a positive result over the long haul, was viewed in kind of a one-dimensional political way that opened up wounds," Bush said.

Charles Lenth, a senior associate with the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association in Boulder, Colo., said that One Florida is not the only plan of its kind to draw fire and produce questionable results.

"Programs like that in several other states have also not done that well," Lenth said. "I think we're just up against really difficult, long-standing education problems."

On other fronts, Bush earns high praise for his initiatives, particularly his recent emphasis on research and faculty improvements. The University of South Florida, for example, got $8-million for a new cancer vaccine laboratory.

"I think there is an underlying recognition that our universities' success, and education, is crucial to the success of the state's economy," Rosenberg said.

Bush also leaves behind a governing system for state universities that is far different from what existed when he became governor.

He and legislators dismantled the Board of Regents in 2001 and shifted many of its powers to local boards of trustees at each university. But the following year, voters passed a constitutional amendment making the Board of Governors the new statewide governing body.

Times staff writers Letitia Stein and Joni James contributed to this report. Shannon Colavecchio-Van Sickler can be reached at (813) 226-3403 or svansickler@sptimes.com.

 

 

[Last modified December 30, 2006, 19:06:48]


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