Questions surround university reform
By BARRY KLEIN
© St. Petersburg Times, published February 5, 2001
If Florida State University had been run by a board of trustees seven years ago, Talbot "Sandy" D'Alemberte might never have become its president.
Even if he had, a lot of people think a university board would have fired him in 1999. That's when he enraged Seminole boosters by resisting calls to lift the suspension of star football player Peter Warrick, who had been charged with felony grand theft.
Yet D'Alemberte, like all of Florida's university presidents, says he supports the idea of having a local board govern his school. With one major caveat: "The trustees can't be trying to do my job," he says.
On this, even the people designing the new structure concede there are no guarantees.
Though a massive overhaul of Florida's higher education system could be in place as early as July 1, no one knows what will happen once powers now held by the state Board of Regents are transferred to much more parochial boards of trustees. The Legislature is expected to take up the recommended overhaul this spring. Some professors, especially in politically volatile south Florida, fear attacks on academic freedom if the state transfers powers to the local boards of trustees. Others worry that the boards may pressure smaller schools to grow too quickly, or meddle with athletic programs at the larger schools.
All of the presidents agree on one point: The key to avoiding problems will be getting the governor to appoint trustees who have their university's long-term interests at heart.
But the state task force that designed the power shift has refused to set any criteria for their selection.
"None of us know what method the governor will use," says University of South Florida president Judy Genshaft.
Because the boards will have the power to hire and fire presidents, that isn't the most comforting of situations.
Genshaft, for example, was not among the three finalists forwarded by the local advisory committee that helped winnow presidential candidates at USF. She might not have gotten the job without a last-minute boost from regents chairman Tom Petway.
D'Alemberte was ranked fourth by FSU's local board.
"The boosters didn't really know him, but they didn't like him because he had graduated from the University of Florida," says Steven Uhlfelder, a regent and member of the local committee.
"Sandy turned out to be a very good president, but it wouldn't have happened if (former university system chancellor) Charlie Reed hadn't had the guts to ignore them and do what was right."
'A red herring'
None of the presidents has been more enthusiastic about the shift to university boards than Modesto Maidique, the president of Florida International University in Miami.
That amuses a few of his colleagues, who say privately that he is the president most likely to run into problems.
The reason is politics -- specifically, the brand of ethnic politics often practiced in Miami.
Lisandro Perez is the director of FIU's Cuban Research Institute, a well-respected program that has significant contacts with Cuba. He worries greatly about what could happen to his department once FIU is governed by university trustees.
He remembers how inflamed Miami became over Elian Gonzalez. He wonders whether even the strongest president could resist the demands that may come from a university board in that situation, because the trustees themselves would be under enormous community pressure.
"The president has done a wonderful job of insulating us in the past, but you have to be concerned," Perez says.
Maidique says he isn't.
"To suggest that Cuban-Americans are more likely to attack academic freedom is ridiculous. It's a red herring," he says.
But recent statements by an influential Cuban-American legislator suggest that Perez may have a point.
A few months ago, the University of Miami announced its new president was Donna Shalala, the Health and Human Services Secretary under Bill Clinton. Miami's Cuban-American community is still outraged that Clinton's Attorney General, Janet Reno, decided to remove Elian from his Miami relatives' home at gunpoint in April so he could return to Cuba with his father.
After hearing the news that Shalala was coming, State Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, R-Miami, called her a "liability."
He said her appointment will make it more difficult to lobby the Republican-controlled Legislature for money. That's no small concern for UM. Last year, the school received $52-million from the state.
Supporters of the university boards insist there will be adequate restraints on the boards' powers.
Even in a worst-case scenario, they say, the governor will be able to save a president, or, if necessary, sack one, over a board's objections.
All the governor has to do, says Phil Handy, chairman of the task force recommending the changes, is fire all of the trustees.
Lines of authority
None of the presidents seems worried about such a scenario. In fact, they argued in favor of giving the trustees the power to hire and fire them.
There was serious talk about vesting that power in the new seven-member state Board of Education that will be created in the restructuring. But the presidents say they prefer clear lines of authority.
"You have to have one boss," says William Merwin, president of Florida Gulf Coast University in Fort Myers.
The presidents say they see the new relationship as one of a chief executive officer to a corporate board of directors. There will be a healthy dose of socializing -- "It's all about human relations," says Genshaft -- but there also will be serious discussions about responsibilities and authority.
"Their job is to set policy goals, then step back and let me do it," says Maidique. "If I don't, they can fire me."
D'Alemberte says he hopes the governor will name retired university presidents to an FSU board. University of Florida president Charles Young talks about tapping the knowledge of corporate CEOs. Genshaft says she wants to make sure a USF board has broad representation from the five counties the university serves.
It could happen. Or the boards could be filled with political allies and campaign contributors. The regents offer ample precedent for that.
Petway, the current chairman, is a good friend of Gov. Bush. Dennis Ross, a former regents chairman, was a deputy chief of staff to then-Gov. Bob Graham. Lawton Chiles appointed major campaign contributors, as did governors before him.
"I have to think all of the presidents are already thinking about making nominations," D'Alemberte says. "A board will only be as good as the people on it."
© 2006 • All Rights Reserved • Tampa Bay Times
490 First Avenue South St. Petersburg, FL 33701 727-893-8111
From the Times state desk
From the state wire