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Chancellor acts to slow regents proposal

Adam Herbert warns that a plan to dismantle the Board of Regents could weaken the state's university system.

By SHELBY OPPEL

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 31, 2000


TALLAHASSEE -- University system Chancellor Adam Herbert is placing himself squarely in the way of legislative attempts to dismantle the Board of Regents, even as the plans head toward a final vote.

In a lengthy statement released Thursday, he asked lawmakers to slow down to allow for a more thoughtful analysis. "The potential cost of not pursuing this (cautious) strategy is the weakening of one of Florida's strongest assets -- its universities," Herbert wrote.

Referring to the Board of Regents, he continued: "We must not destroy a vital engine that is currently one of Florida's strongest, most significant assets."

Herbert already has spoken out against the changes, which are part of a larger proposal to dramatically overhaul the way Florida governs schools. His statement Thursday was his first since Tuesday, when House and Senate leaders unveiled their nearly identical proposals.

After a House committee approved a version Thursday, both bills appeared headed toward a vote in each chamber.

Triggered by a 1998 voter-approved amendment to the state Constitution, the plans would place public schools, community colleges and universities under one overarching "megaboard" of education.

Among the potential casualties, the 14-member Board of Regents has proved the most controversial. The regents set policy for the 10 state universities.

The regents selected Herbert in January 1998. Since then, he has become a close ally of Gov. Jeb Bush. Bush has said he values Herbert's opinion but has yet to take a position on whether to dismantle the Board of Regents.

In his statement, Herbert says the remaining month of the legislative session is not enough time to debate such a dramatic change. Nor have lawmakers made their case for doing away with the status quo, the statement says.

To make the opposite case, Herbert includes a list of the regent-led system's recent accomplishments. Among them:

A 43 percent increase in baccalaureate degrees awarded since 1989. A 120 percent increase in outside research grants, from $335-million to $750-million. Construction of Florida Gulf Coast University in Fort Myers.

"As a result of these and many other accomplishments, the state university system is now regarded as being among the best in the nation and the strongest component of Florida's public" education system, the statement says.

In a passionate speech to a House committee Thursday, Regent Steven Uhlfelder echoed Herbert's arguments for a slower, more thoughtful process. He chided lawmakers for not consulting Herbert further before recommending such sweeping change.

"I care about Adam Herbert. He's been through some damn tough battles in the last few years" for which he deserves respect, Uhlfelder said. "By going this quickly and not getting his input, we're not giving him that respect," Uhlfelder said.

Yet, like most in the audience, Uhlfelder knew that approval by the House Committee on Governmental Operations was all but guaranteed.

To telegraph the issue's importance to House leaders, Republican Speaker John Thrasher temporarily appointed Rep. Bill Sublette, R-Orlando, to the committee to shepherd the bill's passage.

"This is not an attack ... on the Board of Regents. It is not an attack on the state university system," Sublette said.

Instead, proponents say, eliminating the regents and various other boards will streamline the way Florida governs schools. Doing so will make the governor more accountable for the state education system, which is what they say voters wanted when they approved the 1998 amendment.

That amendment eliminates the elected education commissioner in 2003 and lets the governor appoint a new state board of education. The House and Senate versions of the "megaboard" proposal include a three-year transition, an opportunity for more fine-tuning, proponents say.

The two Democratic committee members, Lars Hafner of St. Petersburg and Addie Greene of Mangonia Park, voted against the bill.

"I think we're doing exactly what the voters have asked," said Rep. Mike Fasano, R-New

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