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Local control of state's universities a failing course

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© St. Petersburg Times, published January 8, 2001

Each of us is prejudiced by personal experience. Although I am a Floridian of two decades, I also am a product of the University of North Carolina, one of the nation's oldest and finest state university systems. That system is led by a strong central Board of Governors and a statewide president. Each campus also has a local board of trustees, but with defined powers.

There is no doubt in my mind, zero, that if there were no strong central governing board, and if that state's politicians had meddled with the university system to the extent that happens here, then North Carolina's university system would be . . . well, Florida's.

Sure, they might have won a few more football games up there in Raleigh and Chapel Hill. Maybe they even could have given Florida State University a better contest now and then. That would have tickled the state's politicians, just as our own Florida legislators enjoy their sojourns to the football palaces of Gainesville and Tallahassee.

But they chose different priorities.

Here in Florida, our Legislature's priority is to divvy up political power between itself and the local boosters of each of our 10 state universities. That is why it has voted to abolish the university system's governing body, the Board of Regents, by 2003 at the latest. This was done with Gov. Jeb Bush's approval.

There will be a single state board of education -- named by the governor -- covering kindergarten through university. And each university will have its own board of local folks to call the shots.

It is not hard to predict how this will evolve. It will be a full-time job for the new statewide board to deal with the issues of K-12 education. The Legislature, which already has shown its willingness to micromanage universities (look at the state Senate's attempts to dismember the University of South Florida), will gladly fill the vacuum.

So will the local booster-boards. The proposal is for each school to set its tuition, choose its degree programs, decide tenure for faculty, call its own shots. The boards will not have to think about the state's overall needs and goals, but their own agendas.

At Florida State University, for example, the last time that school selected a president, a local board just might have preferred the former FSU football player who asked for the job instead of the distinguished former American Bar Association president who got it. (No matter how distinguished he was, they almost ran him out of town over the discipline of an FSU football player accused of grand theft.)

True, some states have a tradition of strong universities controlled by local boards without a central authority. But the key word is "tradition." Our tradition runs in the opposite direction. Abolishing the Board of Regents completes the Legislature's efforts of recent years to destroy the system's independence.

The previous chancellor, Charles Reed, was a strong leader and master politician who held his own against the Legislature.

The current chancellor, Adam Herbert, has had neither that power nor independence. Now even Herbert, a Republican, is leaving instead of presiding over his own descent into irrelevance.

So it's all over?

Maybe not.

Last week U.S. Sen. Bob Graham, our former two-term governor, declared that abolishing the Regents will lead to "pervasive mediocrity" in our university system. He said he would support an amendment to our state Constitution to preserve the Regents. It was a warning shot across the bow of the Republican Legislature and governor.

Lovers of speculation (like me) can't resist. Wouldn't it be something if Bob Graham ran for his old job as governor in 2002, drawn back into the fray by the education issue? That's exactly what happened to another retired governor elsewhere, named Jim Hunt, who didn't like what he saw happening and ended up serving another two terms. That state, by the way, was North Carolina.

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