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The university system teetering on the edge

Public universities are facing a crucial time with the Board of Regents being dismantled and Florida’s university system being rebuilt, the brainchild of Gov. Jeb Bush and former House Speaker John Thrasher. Without the regents - seen as a creation of the Democratic culture of the past - the Legislature has its work cut out for it to ensure that public universities are protected from the selfish interests that so often challenged the regents and the university system.

By ROBERT FRIEDMAN

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 18, 2001


And all this time we had assumed that the half-cocked plan to reorganize Florida's university system only looked as if it had been designed on the back of a cocktail napkin.

It turns out that Gov. Jeb Bush and then-House Speaker John Thrasher really did begin devising that plan during dinner more than a year ago, scribbling a new organizational chart on the nearest paper napkin, according to a report by the New York Times Regional Newspapers. Those are the modest origins of an ambitious effort to dismantle and -- Floridians can only hope -- rebuild the structure of the state university system.

Not until a second dinner, it was reported, did Bush and Thrasher share the contents of their napkin with university system Chancellor Adam Herbert and Board of Regents Chairman Tom Petway.

To this day, Herbert, a phlegmatic type who still claims to consider Bush and Thrasher his close friends, has not spoken candidly in public about his reaction to learning that his buddies had written him out of a job, but he decided to quit and go home to Jacksonville once it became clear that they wouldn't be changing their minds. Petway, on the other hand, has remained curiously unperturbed by the dissolution of the board Bush chose him to lead.

In any case, the demise of the Board of Regents was a fait accompli by the time the ink dried on that first dinner napkin, and the Legislature will no doubt rubber-stamp that outcome this spring.

But the Legislature also should have some real work to do in rebuilding the university system.

It is a major understatement to say that many crucial details of the university system reorganization remain to be worked out. The regents are to be replaced by local boards of trustees at each of the system's 10 universities. Lawmakers will either approve or modify a task force's recommendations as to which powers should rest with those local boards, and which should be left to whatever shell of a central authority remains after the chancellor and regents disappear. All sorts of technical details also have to be worked out to keep the universities running, students enrolled and staff paid during the transition.

Most lawmakers don't seem to have noticed yet, but the task force blueprint puts more power in the governor's hands, not theirs. The governor will have 90 new patronage plums to dole out to trustees, and he will choose the people who will oversee what is left of the jobs currently being done by the chancellor, the elected education commissioner and the leader of the community college system.

The task force, led by Bush ally Phil Handy, has been working with what is left of the chancellor's staff to fill in many of those blanks. Lawmakers can play a constructive role this spring by insisting on a delegation of responsibilities that retains the most important elements of the system being dismantled. Those details, or the lack of same, will determine whether this transition is carried out relatively smoothly, or whether it leads to chaos and controversy that will harm Florida for many years to come.

Goodbye Regents

No one should get too weepy over the fate of a bunch of well-connected, well-to-do regents who will land on their feet, but all Floridians should care about what the regents have represented, however imperfectly: academic quality and academic freedom.

The chancellor and regents haven't just buffered the university system from the distorted financial priorities of powerful lawmakers; they've also provided a layer of protection against political assaults on academic integrity.

The Board of Regents was created in the aftermath of a political scandal four decades ago. The reckless meddling of the Johns Committee, a McCarthyesque legislative witch hunt, terribly harmed Florida's universities in the process of trying to root out suspected Communists and homosexuals on state campuses. In the aftermath of that embarrassing episode, the regents were created as part of a new structure to oversee the university system and insulate it from political interference.

Over time, though, the insulation wore thin as past and present chancellors and regents accumulated political enemies.

The universities receive almost $3-billion a year in state funding. The state's 10 universities also bring in almost $1-billion a year in research grants. Add tuition, fees and other sources of income, and the higher education system dwarfs almost every other element of state government. And it becomes a tempting target for an ambitious lawmaker looking to make his mark on his local university.

Such lawmakers tend to start asking meddlesome questions: Why can't their hometown university have its own engineering program? Why can't the new business school be named after one of their disgraced brethren? Why is it necessary to suspend the star football player who landed in jail? Why isn't that Latin American studies program sufficiently anti-Castro?

The tensions between lawmakers and the university leadership over such issues have been a Tallahassee constant, but those tensions boiled over during the last legislative session. As one system official put it, the chancellor and regents "managed to alienate every important constituency over the past couple of years."

You'll probably remember some of these battles:

Powerful lawmakers, led by Thrasher, insisted on a new Florida State University medical school the chancellor and regents said the state doesn't need.

A different bloc of lawmakers muscled through new law schools at Florida A&M and Florida International University over the chancellor's and regents' objections.

After one controversy too many, University of Florida President John Lombardi, who had cultivated great popularity among Tallahassee lawmakers, was fired by Herbert.

Bush concluded that some presidents and other system officials were not sufficiently supportive of his directive to eliminate affirmative action in university admissions policies.

Herbert angered supporters of some schools when he reorganized the universities into three tiers, creating clearer delineations between the major research institutions and those specializing in undergraduate education.

And there were plenty of other spats. A surprising number of lawmakers fancy themselves as potential university presidents and don't like having their ambitions stifled. Others want to steer buildings, programs or entire universities to their districts and get angry when system officials insist on more objective priorities.

Finally, don't underestimate the extent to which the current university structure became vulnerable because a Republican governor and Republican-led Legislature came to see it as a creation of past Democratic administrations.

Herbert's predecessor, longtime Chancellor Charles Reed, began his Tallahassee career as an aide to former Gov. Bob Graham. So did Dennis Ross, Petway's predecessor as regents chairman. Some university presidents, such as FSU's Sandy D'Alemberte and former USF President Betty Castor, also had deep Democratic Party connections.

Some see the demise of the regents as part of a broader effort by Bush and his legislative allies to demolish a predominantly Democratic culture they inherited. Graham, who made education his top priority as governor, certainly takes the demise of the regents personally. Now a U.S. senator, he traveled from Washington to Florida to argue futilely with a task force that had already made up its mind. Now Graham is talking of putting a constitutional amendment on the state ballot to preserve the regents system, but the odds against such an initiative are steep.

In any case, those pushing this reorganization deny any partisan motives and accuse Graham of trying to politicize the issue.

Gov. Bush and his allies will tell you that the changes they are making are just part of a bloodless little reorganization of the state's education bureaucracy. Procedural matters, really. And besides, they say, Florida voters mandated the changes in 1998 when they approved a constitutional amendment to abolish the office of elected state education commissioner and create a new state board to oversee every element of public education from kindergarten through graduate school.

But the education commissioner never had any direct role in the university system, and voters had no idea they were handing lawmakers an excuse to abolish the Board of Regents when they approved that 1998 amendment. Florida's public schools and community colleges will hardly be affected by the reorganization, but the governance of our 10 public universities is being turned on its head.

How to patch things up

Although the current controversy doesn't yet compare with the Johns Committee fallout, the uncertainty already has harmed the state. And if this reorganization is botched, the demise of the regents may be remembered as a monumental political scandal in itself.

Meanwhile, the university system sits in limbo. Herbert has resigned, and the regents will be eliminated this summer. But a new structure won't be fully in place until 2003. In that climate, top officials in the university system have been leaving in droves, and top educators outside the state are not eager to come to Florida to replace them.

"The country is very aware of what's happened (in Florida)," Patrick Callan, president of the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, told the Miami Herald. "This doesn't definitely mean there's a train wreck in the making. But for the short term it's incredible uncertainty."

That uncertainty was the main factor in the University of Florida's inability to recruit a qualified new president after a national search. Florida A&M has had similar trouble attracting a qualified dean for its new law school. Meanwhile, almost half of the jobs in the chancellor's office are sitting vacant, and our university system's reputation already has taken a beating at campuses and capitols around the country.

That makes it imperative for the Legislature to complete the job of reorganizing the university system this spring, rather than leaving some questions unsettled until the new board of education officially takes over in 2003.

The first order of business should be to define the appropriate powers of the new local boards of trustees.

If their roles are properly circumscribed, the local boards can play a positive role, providing a new base of community support for local universities. They also could bring more effective accountability to the universities' day-to-day financial operations. The most valid criticisms of the regents system have revolved around a cumbersome budgeting and accounting bureaucracy that strips too much discretion from local presidents, provosts and department heads.

There also are advantages to giving the local boards more direct responsibility in hiring and firing presidents. (But the selection process should remain public, instead of being exempted from Florida's Sunshine laws as the task force recommends.)

However, the task force contemplates some clearly inappropriate powers for the local boards.

For example, giving the local boards authority to create new academic programs through the master's level is a recipe for waste and mediocrity. The chancellor and regents weren't a perfect check on unnecessary programs; witness the new medical school and law schools. But absent some central authority, the local boards would be under pressure to create expensive new programs without regard to their effect on the quality and funding of existing programs. Two strong programs in a particular field are clearly preferable to (and less expensive than) eight mediocre ones, but the current plans for the system wouldn't prevent such duplication.

Herbert can't even bring himself to criticize this element of the reorganization plan. "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 told the Times' Barry Klein.

And what are the odds of such an open checkbook from Tallahassee, Mr. Ex-chancellor-to-be? The governor proposes cutting funding for higher education in his new budget, even though the system is being forced to absorb the costs of new schools it didn't ask for.

The local boards also should be kept out of potential controversies over curriculum, texts, campus speakers and other such issues that can become politicized in the absence of a central authority.

Finally, the Legislature has a responsibility to ensure that the seemingly mundane functions of the university system are maintained. Will faculty and staff still be state employees? Who prints their paychecks? Handles their health insurance? These questions can't wait until the new, jumbo board of education is in place in 2003.

The governance of the university system affects all Floridians, whether or not they have a direct connection to one or more of the campuses.

Just in the purely economic terms Bush and Handy understand, the universities are crucial to Florida's quality of life. Juggernauts of the new economy, such as California's Silicon Valley and North Carolina's Research Triangle, were built on the foundation of strong university systems. States that neglect (or punish) their universities get left in the backwater.

Florida's position in that new order will depend on whether lawmakers spend more time this spring plotting short-term power plays or making long-term plans that truly are in the universities' -- and the state's -- best interests.

About this series

For a Better Florida is intended to focus public debate on the work of the Florida Legislature and the challenges this state faces, and it is an expression of how the newspaper's editorial board views some of the issues. The series, which begins today and continues for two more Sundays, has been published prior to every annual legislative session since 1951 and is also compiled into a booklet that is distributed to lawmakers.

Tell it to Tallahassee

Florida lawmakers begin their annual legislative session on March 6, and now's the time to send them a message. What should they have on their agenda? Schools? Taxes? The environment? Roads? Technology? Welfare? Please send us your thoughts, and we will publish as many as we can. Address letters to: Tell it to Tallahassee, P.O. Box 1121, St. Petersburg, FL 33703. You may also send them by fax (727-893-8675) or by e-mail (letters@sptimes.com).

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