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Abolishing regents ignores history

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© St. Petersburg Times, published January 14, 2001

One of Florida's peculiar problems is that it is governed by a lot of people who have no personal memory of Florida's history or have chosen to ignore what they should remember. That leads to the sort of collective amnesia evident in the impending abolition of the Board of Regents.

The regents have been far from perfect in their management -- or, in too many cases, micromanagement -- of the university system, but the decision to be rid of them should have followed, not preceded, the clearest possible understanding of what will take their place. That's still being decided -- or, to put it more precisely -- recommended by the Education Governance Task Force, which is meeting at the University of South Florida.

Legislators who insisted on this course chose not to know, or to forget, the principal reason why the regents were created, with a strong chancellor as their chief executive, almost 40 years ago. Former Sen. Ed H. Price Jr., of Bradenton, who chaired the committee on higher education, recalls that lawmakers were tired of the several state universities -- there were only four then -- bringing their budget fights to the Legislature. A key purpose of the regents was to assign priorities and obtain lump sum funding from the Legislature. The old Board of Control had been unable to do that.

To a large extent, it worked too well. The regents' objections to new law schools for Florida A&M University and Florida International University, and to an even costlier new medical school at Florida State, were the catalyst for the legislative effort to abolish the board. Thus the regents may become the only state agency in history to be abolished for doing what it was meant to do.

Legislators evidently presume the new state board of education, which the governor will appoint beginning in January 2003, will take on the task of allocating priorities. That is not certain. If each university is to be entitled to decide on its own masters' programs, central fiscal control is, by definition, futile.

And if the universities, which now number 10, must once again lobby the Legislature for separate funding, it exposes each of them to the wrong kind of legislative pressure -- pressure that the regents have, for the most part, managed to deflect.

There has already been the clearest of warnings. In a loud, overheard conversation aboard an airplane last month, state Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, R-Miami, a very senior legislator, objected to a University of Miami board member over the university's appointing Donna Shalala, the Clinton administration's health and human services secretary, as its new president. Diaz-Balart called the appointment "offensive" to Miami's Hispanic community because of the Elian Gonzalez affair. He said it would make it more difficult for him to get state money for the university, whose medical school is generously subsidized by the state.

Rep. Carlos Lacasa, a Miamian who chairs the House Budget Committee, wasn't directly threatening. But even he said the Gonzalez case might be a factor.

As a private institution, the University of Miami is required to deal directly with the Legislature for its aid, which makes it vulnerable even to such irrational objections.

Each of the state universities, warns U.S. Sen. Bob Graham, a former governor, will be just as vulnerable without the regents to run interference for them.

And Floridians with long memories also recall how the University of South Florida -- where the governance task force met this week -- was nearly destroyed in its infancy by the ruthless political meddling of a homophobic legislative committee.

Where are the assurances that this can't happen again? That state universities and their budgets won't be singled out for political vengeance?

"Sentence first, verdict afterwards," said Lewis Carroll's Queen of Hearts.

So did the Florida Legislature.

- Martin Dyckman is an associate editor for the Times.

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