Fight over higher education governance gets nasty

State senators dress down the chancellor of Florida's 11 state colleges at a hearing.

By Shannon Colavecchio-Van Sickler, Times Staff Writer
Published March 6, 2008

TALLAHASSEE -- In a sign of just how ugly the fight over university system governance has become, state senators dressed down the chancellor of Florida's 11 state colleges during a standing-room-only meeting Wednesday.

Members of the Senate's K-12 committee unanimously moved forward a proposed constitutional amendment to reinstate an elected education commissioner and to strip the Board of Governors of much of its university oversight powers.

But they did so only after grilling chancellor Mark Rosenberg like a grade schooler who failed his FCAT.

They demanded statistics on faculty recruiting and retention. They questioned the system's performance under his "watch." And the committee chairman ended it by telling Rosenberg he was "dismissed."

Some lobbyists said they have never seen such a display by lawmakers. "Disrespectful," a few attendees whispered as they left the meeting, the first stop for the education proposal.

The back-and-forth began when Rosenberg went to the podium to oppose the proposed education overhaul. The pet project of Senate President Ken Pruitt, R-Port St. Lucie, the ballot measure SJR 2308 is sponsored by Senate budget chief Lisa Carlton, R-Osprey, and supported by Miami Democrat Frederica Wilson. House Speaker Marco Rubio has so far not expressed strong support for the plan.

Rosenberg told committee members that the governance change will politicize higher education and "harm our universities" by creating the system's third major reorganization in the past decade.

Not since 2001, when the Legislature dismantled the university governing board, has the acrimony been so palatable. Lawmakers abolished the governor-appointed Board of Regents after high-profile disputes about the establishment of medical and law schools.

Higher education supporters responded in 2002 by placing a citizen initiative on the ballot that granted control of the universities to a 17-member Board of Governors, most of whom are picked by the governor.

Rosenberg told senators Wednesday that the current Board of Governors is the best advocate for higher education, despite its recent disagreements with the Legislature over the setting of tuition.

"Perhaps we have been more vocal than we need to be," Rosenberg conceded. "But we are worried about faculty ratios, the lack of advisers, the lack of campus police. We are not giving our sons and daughters the quality education they need."

From there, Wednesday's meeting grew tenser by the minute. And before it was over, senators used the chancellor's words to make their case for the proposed amendment.

Sen. Larcenia Bullard, D-Miami, complained that "I don't even know who the Board of Governors is. They never come see me.

"Why do we need 17 people who have no relationship with the Legislature?" she asked.

Rosenberg replied: "You were one of the first legislators I visited when I was appointed. Had you mentioned this earlier, I certainly would have gotten them to visit you."

Sen. Alex Diaz de la Portilla, R-Miami, told the chancellor his answer to Bullard was "disrespectful."

Committee Chairman Don Gaetz, a Panhandle Republican who was superintendent of Okaloosa schools, delivered the final blow.

He repeatedly asked Rosenberg for "specifics" of how the proposed governance change would make it harder for universities to attract top faculty members and administrators, as Rosenberg contends.

"This is a system you just indicted, by saying it has not provided the quality education students deserve -- which by the way was under your watch," Gaetz said. "I think your testimony is starting to make Sen. Carlton's and Sen. Wilson's case."

Gaetz even quizzed the chancellor on the history of higher education in Virginia, where the university system was established by Thomas Jefferson. And when the chancellor lacked an answer, Gaetz replied curtly:

"Thank you, chancellor. You're excused."

Asked later about the tenor of the questioning, the chancellor remained politically correct: "The Senate has a view about how we can have a quality higher education system, and I can respect that."

And it's not just the Senate. Gov. Charlie Crist recently told the Times that if university leaders are unhappy with the state of things, "maybe they ought to turn the reins over to somebody else."

Shannon Colavecchio-Van Sickler can be reached at svansickler@sptimes.com or (850)224-7263.