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    A Times Editorial

    University arm-twist

    © St. Petersburg Times, published February 2, 2001


    Phil Handy, the front man for Tallahassee's power play on the university system, accuses U.S. Sen. Bob Graham of "politicizing" the process. That's like Mike Tyson accusing Evander Holyfield of bad table manners.

    Handy knows the effort to chew up the Board of Regents and spit them out has been entirely political from the start. Otherwise, he wouldn't be leading it. Handy, a Winter Park businessman who once wanted to be governor himself, has excellent political connections, starting with his ties to Gov. Jeb Bush. But his name isn't the first that would pop into anyone's head when searching for a learned architect of university governance.

    Graham, on the other hand, has stronger credentials as a friend of Florida's public schools and universities than Handy and the rest of his task force combined. Graham made public education the centerpiece of his two terms as governor, launching a crusade to raise Florida into the upper quartile of states in educational achievement. The entire system benefited from the increased funding and attention, but our universities were particularly well served by Graham's focus. Graham put a strong chancellor and central organization in place and saw to it that the university system was as well insulated from Tallahassee politics as it has ever been.

    That push toward the upper quartile is a quaint memory now. Since then, Florida has regressed below national averages on most measures of academic support and achievement. Graham's late effort to try to reverse the course of Handy's task force probably is futile, but the former governor deserves no criticism for speaking out in an effort to protect what remains of the best qualities of a university system in which he invested so much effort. He understands that the changes already set in motion erode the autonomy the universities need to provide first-rate research, undergraduate education and community service.

    Handy told a couple of other whoppers in the course of demeaning Graham.

    First, he claimed his task force is merely "implementing what the people of Florida said they wanted us to do." The people of Florida said no such thing, and Handy knows it. Voters approved a 1998 amendment eliminating the elected education commissioner and authorizing the governor to appoint a new state board of education. They didn't know they were giving Bush, Handy and the Legislature a pretext to abolish the Board of Regents, run off the chancellor and turn our universities into a giant spoils system.

    Second, Handy claimed that every university president in the system endorsed the task force's recommendations. They did -- after Handy and other politicians twisted their arms. The presidents and other university officials were all but ignored while the task force was writing its new blueprint. Then they were ordered to salute the results. That unseemly show of political muscle was just a harbinger of what is to come.

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