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University presidents fear loss of regents

They say Florida's lawmakers would be free to meddle in higher education if a plan to abolish the Board of Regents is successful.

By BARRY KLEIN

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 6, 2000


TALLAHASSEE -- State Sen. Don Sullivan didn't like it when the state Board of Regents decided several months ago that only experienced academics could apply for the University of South Florida presidency, a job the veteran lawmaker very much wanted.

Now here comes Sullivan, a Pinellas County Republican, putting his weight behind an effort in the Florida Legislature to abolish the board.

Is it payback time? Sullivan says no, but this latest assault on the regents is just one more example of what many contend is the Legislature's penchant for messing with the university system.

This year alone, House Speaker John Thrasher is aiming to place a medical school at Florida State University, his alma mater, over the regents' strenuous objections.

Incoming Senate President John McKay is trying to grab the John Ringling museum complex for FSU even though the University of South Florida has a campus right across the street. And Sullivan has a bill that would create a new tier of four-year universities, including one in St. Petersburg.

The 14-member Board of Regents, most of whom are appointed by the governor, are supposed to act as a buffer against political meddling. But Florida's 10 university presidents say that insulation would be gone if the Legislature abolishes the board as part of an effort to reshape education governance.

"We could lose a lot of the freedoms that we've gained over the last 10 years," warns University of Central Florida President John Hitt.

This morning, the presidents will meet with university system Chancellor Adam Herbert to devise a strategy for fighting the proposal. Afterward, they are expected to talk with Gov. Jeb Bush, who has yet to take a position on the regents' future.

Some of the concerns likely to be expressed were outlined in interviews this week.

The proposal, for example, calls for the establishment of separate boards of trustees at each university.

The presidents say that will almost certainly result in schools competing for limited state resources. The chancellor worries those fights will result in unnecessary, and expensive, program duplication.

Florida Atlantic University President Anthony Catanese says the proposal will force the presidents to serve two different masters.

Each board of trustees, he noted, will have the power to hire and fire its president. But the president also will have to answer to an appointed state Board of Education, a new entity that would assume many of the regents' responsibilities, including setting budgets and defining missions.

"You would be forced into a situation where you have to satisfy everyone," Catanese says. "The only way to do that is to not do very much."

Like all the presidents, Catanese is miffed that lawmakers seem completely uninterested in hearing their views on the proposed reorganization. Last week, he wrote a letter urging legislative leaders to slow down the process.

That request tickles state Sen. Kendrick Meek, D-Miami, an African-American who made the same plea to the regents before they voted to ban the consideration of race and gender in university admissions.

Meek says it would be hypocritical of him to oppose such a request, but he warns that lawmakers are annoyed with the regents over a smorgasbord of issues, many involving their pet projects.

"This is definitely a train running 110 miles an hour," Meek says.

University system officials say the only reason to rush this proposal is political convenience.

The proposed overhaul is rooted in a voter-approved 1998 amendment to the state Constitution that eliminates Florida's elected education commissioner and authorizes the governor to appoint a new state education board.

In February, a 37-member commission recommended the establishment of a "mega-board" that would have authority over all components of Florida's education system, from prekindergarten to graduate school.

That would eliminate any need for the regents and the state Board of Community Colleges. That's fine with legislative leaders, who would love to do exactly that.

But the changes aren't constitutionally required until 2003.

"There is no reason to move this through now when there are still so many questions about how it will work," says Phil Lewis, the only regent who sat on the commission that recommended the new structure.

Lewis, a former president of the state Senate, says some of the lawmakers backing the changes undoubtedly think it will result in an improved education system. But some are probably just looking for leverage in upcoming budget negotiations.

And some, says Lewis, see this as a "blood sport."

"When it comes to the Board of Regents, it's been that way for decades," he says.

In 1971, a group of state senators tried to abolish the regents because they were outraged about the board's unwillingness to crack down on campus radicals and student behavior in university dormitories.

In 1979, legislative leaders proposed establishing local boards of trustees for each university. They said the regents were to blame for the state not graduating enough highly skilled workers.

The most recent attempt to curb the regents came in 1998, during the furor over the board's attempt to oust then-University of Florida President John Lombardi. State Sen. John Grant, a Tampa Republican, proposed reducing the regents' terms from six years to one.

Like all the others, that measure eventually died. But some think this year's effort could end differently.

As evidence, they point to the presence of Lt. Gov. Frank Brogan at the news conference at which the proposed restructuring was announced by legislative leaders. Brogan is the chief lobbyist in the Legislature for the governor.

Many higher education officials say the only thing that may save the regents is a Bush veto.

Bush spokesman Justin Sayfie warns against reading too much into Brogan's presence.

He says both Brogan and Bush strongly support changing education governance in Florida so it runs seamlessly from prekindergarten to graduate school.

"But the lieutenant governor's presence does not mean he supports the current legislation as it relates to the Board of Regents," Sayfie says. "Neither he nor the governor has taken a position on whether, or what role, the regents would have in the new structure."

Many of the regents have spoken out against the overhaul that would eliminate their unpaid jobs. The current regents include Jacksonville businessman Tom Petway, friend of Bush's and a supporter during the 1998 governor's race; Steve Uhlfelder, a Tallahassee lawyer-lobbyist; and Adolfo Henriquez, a Miami banker.


-- Information from Times staff writer William Yardley was used in this report.

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