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University presidents urge: Keep regents

They lobby for more study and debate before the board is abolished.

By SHELBY OPPEL

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 7, 2000


TALLAHASSEE -- For the first time in 20 years, the presidents of Florida's 10 public universities are so worried by proposed changes that they arrived together Thursday at the Capitol to argue against them.

Top lawmakers want to eliminate the Board of Regents, who oversee universities, as part of an overhaul of the way Florida governs schools.

In his two decades in Florida, university system Chancellor Adam Herbert said no other issue has spurred the presidents to lobby as they did Thursday in meetings with Gov. Jeb Bush, Senate President Toni Jennings and House Speaker John Thrasher.

"We don't want to get in a situation where we're all competing," interim University of Florida President Charles Young told Thrasher.

"You're telling me that doesn't happen now?" the speaker replied.

At least officially, the presidents did not change any minds Thursday.

Bush appeared more receptive than Jennings or Thrasher to addressing the presidents' request for more study and debate before eliminating the regents.

"I don't think in the next four weeks (that) every "what if' question is going to be answered," Bush said, stopping short of promising to block the regents' demise.

Still, Bush said: "I think we can work it out. I think it'll be fine."

If the presidents had their wish, the regents wouldn't change a bit. The 14-member board has served Florida well, they say.

In a strategy session, Young said the group should urge lawmakers to put off the changes until next year.

"The notion that we could turn this sow's ear into a silk purse in the next 30 days is incomprehensible to me," he said, referring to the remaining month of the legislative session.

Others, including regents Chairman Tom Petway, predicted they won't have the option to delay. Instead of trying to derail the changes, the presidents should push for a greater role in shaping the ultimate product, he suggested.

A voter-approved 1998 amendment to the state Constitution eliminates Florida's elected education commissioner and authorizes the governor to appoint a new state education board. Lawmakers want that new board to oversee all components of Florida's education system, eliminating the regents.

During Thursday's meetings, the presidents appeared to take Petway's advice. No one asked for a total delay.

Instead, Florida State University President Talbot "Sandy" D'Alemberte suggested lawmakers further study who should replace the regents before abolishing them in statute.

The House version of the bill now does the opposite -- dismantling the regents as of 2003, then studying. The Senate version allows for even less debate.

"Let's aim first, then fire," D'Alemberte said.

Jennings was non-committal in her meeting with the presidents, though she promised to "keep listening." Thrasher stood firm on the need for change.

"Sometimes there's not a problem, but sometimes there's a feeling we can do better," he said.

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