Bush's trustees mostly in GOP
By BARRY KLEIN
© St. Petersburg Times, published May 8, 2001
Gov. Jeb Bush says partisan politics will not play a role in his selection of university trustees, which he ranks among his most important appointments.
But his record tells another story.
In his 2 1/2 years as governor, Bush has appointed 212 people to community college boards of trustees and the state Board of Regents. The overwhelming majority -- 83 percent of those who list a political affiliation -- are Republican.
That tilt is particularly relevant now, as Bush prepares to select 139 people to serve on university boards of trustees and a new state Board of Education.
It's an unprecedented situation for Florida: Never before has a governor had the opportunity to completely reshape higher education with one round of appointments.
Bush said Monday he expects to have all the slots filled by June 30, one day before the Regents are scheduled to be abolished as part of a Republican-led overhaul of higher education.
His office already has received more than 500 nominations for the university boards, including such names as former U.S. Sen. Connie Mack, former Gov. Bob Martinez and comedian Bill Cosby.
These are important jobs: Trustees will have the power to hire and fire university presidents and to authorize new degree programs.
The job application lists 10 desired characteristics for trustees, including "strength of character," a "high degree of success and recognition" and a "willingness to serve in the best interests of the state, not simply a particular institution."
The application also asks for party affiliation.
Liz Hirst, a Bush spokeswoman, said that is a standard question asked regarding any government appointment. She said Bush will make his selections based on who he thinks is best suited for the job, not political affiliation.
"He is not going to just appoint business leaders and corporate leaders. He wants to look outside the box," Hirst said. "The governor wants a very diverse group of people."
But diversity -- at least as defined by his previous appointments -- apparently has its limits.
While Bush has named a high percentage of women and African-Americans to higher education boards, he has appointed precious few Democrats.
All six of his appointments to the Regents are Republican. So are most of the 206 people he has named to the community college boards.
Bush certainly isn't the first chief executive in Florida to favor people who share his political views. It's a time-honored tradition, one practiced with equal enthusiasm by state Democrats.
"All things being equal, why shouldn't a Republican governor appoint Republicans?" asked Regent Steven Uhlfelder, a Democrat who was appointed by then-Gov. Lawton Chiles, who beat Bush in 1994.
What matters, he said, "is whether the members are qualified."
At least some of the people who have forwarded nominations clearly assume the appointments will be based, at least in part, on political allegiance.
Former Florida State University President Bernard Sliger has sent several names to the governor for consideration. He detailed their qualifications, but also noted their level of support for Bush.
Gus Stavros, a major donor to the University of South Florida and a nominee for its board, said it would be unreasonable to expect the governor to select people who don't share his political views.
"We have a two-party political system, and that's how things work," said Stavros, a registered Republican who said he also votes for Democrats. "He is going to pick the people he knows."
Faculty leaders have probably been the group most resistant to the idea of politically driven appointments.
They worry about a "corporate mentality" taking over higher education, one that sees students as a commodity to be shaped to meet work force needs.
"If the governor's picks are overwhelmingly politicians and business tycoons . . .then higher education in Florida is a runaway train," said Nancy Jane Tyson, an English professor and leader of USF's faculty senate.
But ideology isn't the biggest concern, she said. The university system needs to be protected from politicians of all stripes.
"I'm hoping for a strong representation of people who understand higher education, comprehensive research and liberal arts issues," Tyson said. "Getting an equal number of academics (on the boards) is crucial."
- Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.
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