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    Regents close to extinction

    An overhaul of the state's university system, replacing the regents with separate boards of trustees, awaits the House's okay.

    By BARRY KLEIN and DIANE RADO

    © St. Petersburg Times, published May 5, 2001


    TALLAHASSEE -- State lawmakers late Friday were scrambling to complete work on a sweeping higher education overhaul that includes major changes for the University of South Florida and St. Petersburg Junior College.

    The bill was approved about 9 p.m. by the state Senate, which then adjourned. But it was still awaiting action in the House as a midnight deadline approached.

    The measure, expected to be a centerpiece of the legislative session, would abolish the state Board of Regents, created 36 years ago to minimize political interference in higher education.

    The regents' powers would be split between new university boards of trustees and a seven-member state Board of Education. Gov. Jeb Bush would appoint all of their members -- a total of 150 -- giving him unprecedented influence over Florida's higher education future.

    Supporters of the Republican-led restructuring said the changes would make Florida universities more responsive to student needs.

    Critics said the elimination of the regents would ignite wasteful competition between universities, and open the door to increased political meddling.

    As evidence, they point to the way powerful lawmakers tried to shield other higher education changes by attaching them to the reorganization bill, forcing their passage despite questions about their impact.

    One of those measures would allow SPJC to become the first community college in Florida to offer four-year degrees. Administrators there say that could attract an additional 1,000 students in fall 2002, when several new degree programs will debut.

    Another change would require USF to grant significantly greater autonomy to its regional campuses in St. Petersburg and Sarasota, including budget independence and separate accreditation.

    Both measures were pushed by state Sen. Don Sullivan, R-Largo, who has accused USF of shortchanging its regional campuses.

    Last year, he almost succeeded in pushing through a bill that would have made the campuses into independent schools. He threatened to do the same this year, but backed off after USF officials said they would support his plan for greater autonomy.

    Then there is the matter of New College, the well-regarded liberal arts program USF has operated on its Sarasota campus since 1975.

    If approved, the reorganization would make New College the state's 11th public university.

    It has just 650 students. That's about one-fifth of the enrollment at Florida Gulf Coast University, which is by far the state's smallest school.

    But New College has a powerful patron -- Senate president John McKay, a Bradenton Republican who persuaded colleagues to put $1.2-million in the state budget to help pay for the school's split from USF.

    That isn't nearly enough to pay the school's operating expenses, which this year totalled at least $5.9-million.

    But supporters are undaunted.

    "USF has been wonderful to New College, but if we're serious about enhancing the national stature of the school, independence is the way to go," said Rolland Heiser, president of the New College Foundation.

    Education changes

    State lawmakers approved major changes Friday to Florida's higher education system. The highlights include:

    Abolishing the state Board of Regents. Starting July 1, the Regents' powers will be split between new university boards of trustees and a new seven-member state Board of Education.

    Allowing St. Petersburg Junior College to offer four-year degrees in a limited number of fields, including nursing and teacher education. SPJC expects to make the change in fall 2002. Lawmakers said other two-year schools can petition for the same opportunity.

    Requiring the University of South Florida to provide its regional campuses in St. Petersburg and Sarasota with greater autonomy, including budget independence and separate accreditation. Lawmakers hope that will spur significant growth on both campuses.

    Converting New College -- USF's 650-student liberal arts program in Sarasota -- into the state's newest and smallest university.

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