St. Petersburg Times Online: News of Florida

Weather | Sports | Forums | Comics | Classifieds | Calendar | Movies

Overhaul plan hinders Fla. universities

Uncertainty about Florida's plan for higher education could make it hard to fill top posts and keep grants.


© St. Petersburg Times, published March 27, 2001

Uncertainty about Florida's plan for higher education could make it hard to fill top posts and keep grants.

The university system chancellor quit, and his interim replacement says she can't find anyone to fill the dozens of vacancies hobbling Florida's higher education bureaucracy.

There is an interim president at the University of Florida and interim deans at four of its major colleges. Supporters of Florida A&M University want to know who is going to pick the school's new president. Faculty leaders around the state say it is becoming harder to attract top candidates for open jobs.

None of this surprises national experts, who say such turmoil -- at least in the short term -- is the predictable result of the Legislature's decision to radically overhaul Florida's higher education system.

"The hardest thing is figuring out what problem this solution is supposed to fix," says Patrick Callan, president of the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education.

"I'm sure some of the people who are involved here are acting with good intentions," says Bill Friday, president emeritus of the University of North Carolina. "But it's also clear much of this has political overtones."

Those educators are among the experts who were asked recently how Florida's plan to create an education structure unlike any in the United States is being viewed outside the state.

It is not an idle question.

If the changes are seen as politically motivated, it will become harder to attract top faculty and administrators to Florida, the experts say. If the changes are seen as opening universities to destructive competition, the state could lose lucrative contracts and grants.

The bill that would abolish the state Board of Regents, which has governed Florida's university system since 1965, was signed into law last year by Gov. Jeb Bush.

He and other supporters say it will create a "seamless" education system that stretches from kindergarten to graduate school.

A state task force recommended how it would work, and the GOP-run Legislature is expected to endorse it. The regents' powers will be shifted to a seven-member board of education and new boards of trustees at each university.

Every member of those boards will be appointed by the governor, giving him unprecedented influence over the way Floridians are educated.

Phil Handy, chairman of the task force that designed the new structure, doesn't dispute that the changes are causing disruptions. That's why the task force asked state lawmakers to implement the new structure as soon as possible, he says.

The regents are expected to be out of business by July 1. The new boards should be up and running by the end of the year.

If all of this was so damaging, Handy asks, "why are all of the university presidents unanimously supporting it?"

The educators who were interviewed say they have no way of knowing, though some said they assume the presidents had little choice.

They also say it is too early to assess the plan's eventual impact.

"Until we have a final document, there is no way of saying what aspects, if any, might be problematic," says James Rogers, executive director of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, which accredits Florida universities.

But many of the educators say they are certain about one thing: Florida's university system wasn't in crisis, a usual requirement for this degree of change.

The system was not among the nation's best, but it was certainly improving, says Richard Novak, executive director of the Center for Public and Higher Education Trusteeship and Governance.

Friday, the president emeritus in North Carolina, suspects politics was the root cause. If so, he says, the consequences won't be pretty.

He says the power shift from the regents to individual universities could lead to expensive program duplication.

"It's unrealistic to think universities will restrain themselves," says Friday, who thinks it's also unlikely that politicians will be able to resist the temptation to reward their home campus or alma mater.

He predicts that decentralization will increase competition for limited state resources. That could alienate the major foundations that award grant money, he says, causing them to bypass the state.

Handy's task force was aware of concerns that the regents' abolishment would increase political meddling. That's why the panel said the Legislature should have to obtain a two-thirds majority vote to override higher education policy decisions.

So far, lawmakers don't seem inclined to go along. That provision was not included in the bills that will be considered in both legislative chambers this week.

While supporters of the restructuring prefer to focus on its eventual impact, critics say you can't ignore the damage being done now.

The regents staff, for example, has been decimated.

Chancellor Adam Herbert resigned in January, saying he had no interest in serving in a diminished role. Several of his vice chancellors also have resigned, as have dozens of lower-level bureaucrats.

"We can't continue to operate a highly centralized governing staff when we have lost half of our employees, with more people resigning every day," interim Chancellor Judy Hample told the university presidents in a recent conference call.

She said the system has been unable to find replacements.

There is little doubt the proposed changes crippled last year's search for a UF president. All six finalists eventually dropped out, with several citing the uncertainty surrounding the restructuring as a major reason.

While UF eventually secured the services of former UCLA President Charles Young, who agreed to serve for up to two years, the delay has slowed the filling of other key positions at the school, including the deans of the college of education and liberal arts and sciences, and the vice president for administrative affairs.

"It was critical to know who the president was," says Ken Wald, who is leading the search for the liberal arts and sciences dean.

He says the search has netted about 70 applicants, which is about what he would expect in a normal situation. He says the caliber of candidates is good.

"Of course, you never know who didn't apply," he says.

The hardest thing to pin down is the impact on faculty hiring.

Rosie Webb Joels, president of the United Faculty of Florida, the bargaining agent for university professors, says colleagues are telling her they are having trouble attracting strong applicant pools for open positions.

Faculty leaders at UF and the University of South Florida make the same complaint.

USF officials say they haven't seen any impact. "We haven't heard of any problems," says vice provost Tennyson Wright. "This is an issue an individual might be concerned about, but there is no evidence to support a conclusion that the reorganization is affecting faculty hiring or retention."

But it will, says Richard Briggs, a faculty leader and UF radiology professor who says he is considering whether to leave Gainesville after 13 years. "The thing keeping me here is I have a lot of good colleagues," he says. "But if this thing gets implemented, there are other places around the country that will offer more stability."

© Copyright, St. Petersburg Times. All rights reserved.