The potential for pitfall is there
By BARRY KLEIN
© St. Petersburg Times, published February 10, 2001
TALLAHASSEE -- Adam Herbert thinks the proposed overhaul of Florida's higher education system could put the state's smaller universities at a significant disadvantage.
And he won't be surprised if the changes lead to extensive duplication of the universities' various programs, with schools competing feverishly to be all things to all students.
"If the state is comfortable providing every university the freedom to create new programs, however expensive they may be, at whatever site they consider appropriate, then it's not a problem," Herbert says.
But as the final weeks tick down on his tenure as university system chancellor, Herbert wants to make one thing clear: He isn't saying the plan will produce a lesser system.
He's saying it isn't clear what kind of system it will produce.
"We'll have to see what comes out of the legislative process," he said in an interview this week. "It's in the political arena now."
That was supposed to be solid ground for Herbert, whose rise to chancellor after 10 years as a university president was due in part to his friendships with powerful Republicans, especially Gov. Jeb Bush and former House Speaker John Thrasher.
That's the irony of Herbert's situation. The two men thought to be his close allies are the people most responsible for his recent decision to quit.
It was Bush and Thrasher who decided it was time to abolish the state Board of Regents and shift most of its powers to university boards of trustees. The change essentially restructured Herbert, 57, out of a job.
He worries it also could make it more difficult to build universities of national significance, especially given growing concerns about higher education budget cuts.
In the interview, Herbert refused to criticize Bush, whom he still considers a good friend. He says he told the governor privately what he thought about the plan, and remains convinced that was his best shot at having an impact.
Herbert won't comment on the discussions, or whether his arguments made any difference. He says it's time to move on.
So in three weeks he will return to the University of North Florida in Jacksonville, where he once was president, and where he now will be paid $240,000 a year to head a new center on public policy and leadership development.
Herbert always planned to return to UNF, but he didn't think it would happen this way -- with the system he had labored to improve splintering into 10 separate fiefdoms.
Still, he says he is satisfied with his tenure, which included three consecutive years of double-digit budget increases.
"I have no regrets," he says. "I only wish I had more time."
A different climate
Herbert says he was told about the plan to abolish the regents several months before he notified the board.
He says he waited because the governor and others had asked confidentially for his thoughts. At that point, he says, the restructuring was still in the conceptual stage. And he notes that Tom Petway, the regents chairman, was fully informed at all times.
That's not good enough, says regent Steven Uhlfelder.
"It's good to work behind the scenes sometimes, but he should have told us," Uhlfelder says. "There are others on the board who are close to the governor."
Like a lot of people who think highly of Herbert's talents, Uhlfelder says he may not have been the best chancellor for these intensely political times.
"Adam likes to approach things more like a researcher or a distinguished professor," he says. "In Tallahassee, there has to be a lot of give and take."
Herbert gets annoyed when people question his taste for political combat. He says he "loves a political environment."
He says his style is just less confrontational than that of his predecessors. "But it's a different climate here today. A different approach is appropriate."
Others aren't so sure.
"I know Adam felt his relationship with Republican leaders would give him an opportunity to moderate the more radical changes being discussed," says Dennis Ross, a Democrat and a former regents chairman. "Obviously, he was wrong."
After it was clear that Herbert would soon lose much of his authority over higher education, he was approached about other jobs.
Thrasher talked to him about becoming state commissioner of education, a position that would have given him oversight over all aspects of Florida's education system.
Uhlfelder says he and Petway talked to Herbert about becoming president of the University of Florida, a position the regents couldn't fill, in large part because of the uncertainty over the scope of the pending reorganization.
The UF presidency is now occupied by former UCLA Chancellor Charles Young, who is functioning as a kind of permanent interim.
Herbert does not want to talk about the job offers.
"I know my name has been thrown around, but that doesn't mean any of the discussions were serious," he says.
Herbert begins his new job March 5 -- a day before the start of the legislative session, when the fight over the university system's future will begin in earnest.
A state task force is recommending the changes be phased in as early as July 1. That means the universities could have their own governing boards by fall, along with a new seven-member state Board of Education, which would oversee all aspects of education, from kindergarten to post-graduate work.
The plan has sparked a strong response from U.S. Sen. Bob Graham, a Democrat who has accused Bush and the Republican-controlled Legislature of trying to politicize the state's higher education system.
Graham says he will take the issue to Florida voters if lawmakers insist on eliminating the regents. That would happen in 2002, the same year Bush is expected to run for re-election.
Herbert won't comment on Graham's effort. But he says there is no reason a governing board can't be reconstituted if voters says that's what they want.
Herbert says the key issue lawmakers need to decide is how much power to give the university boards. The task force is recommending they be allowed to hire and fire their presidents, to set tuition rates, to bargain collectively with university employees and to create new degree programs up to the master's level.
That would be fine in a world of infinite resources, Herbert says. But the governor is recommending a small spending cut for the university system this year. And no one knows what kind of support there will be in the future.
Herbert says university boards could pressure their presidents to grow their school in ways that might not be in the state's best interests.
That could mean neglecting undergraduate education for more prestigious, and expensive, master's and Ph.D. programs, he says.
It also could lead to destructive competition.
"There has to be a way to assure that fights over resources are controlled," he says. "That's particularly important when you consider the size differences in our institutions, the age differences and the differences in the legislative delegations that represent them."
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