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Politics powerful pedigree in quest for UF's top dog

By HOWARD TROXLER

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 24, 2000


This ambition that the University of Florida's next president will be a "top-notch" academic is rather sweet, given that the state university system is now being run directly by bib-overall-wearing, gap-toothed, banjo-picking rednecks in the Legislature.

It is a recent ambition, anyway. Until now, hiring a politician for a Florida university president has been a perfectly acceptable tradition. To be blunt, several of them have done a better job than a weak academic would have.

The most recent example, of course, is Betty Castor, the former state education commissioner, who kicked butt as president of the University of South Florida in Tampa. She stepped down last year to universal accolades.

"Although Betty Castor is an outstanding political leader," some 200 members of the USF faculty sniffed in a 1993 petition to block her hiring, "we do not believe that she meets most criteria necessary to be our next president."

Marshall Criser, a lawyer from Palm Beach, was selected in 1983 as president of the University of Florida. His main qualification was service on the Board of Regents, a political post. Yet he was credited with doing an excellent job.

"People who say politics have no place in education," Criser said during his job interview, "are naive and don't understand the process."

Sandy D'Alemberte, current president of Florida State University, is not a career academic. He was a big-shot lawyer in private practice, even a former president of the American Bar Association, before taking over FSU's law school and then its presidency.

Charlie Reed was chancellor of the entire state university system before the current occupant of that job, Adam Herbert. What was Reed's job before being chancellor? Chief of staff and top lobbyist for former Gov. Bob Graham.

Reed was hired in 1985 to replace a chancellor named Barbara Newell, of whom the St. Petersburg Times reported: "Her downfall was said to be an inability to wheel and deal with the Legislature." Reed was considered a shoo-in "because he possesses the familiarity with Florida politics that Newell lacked."

We are not talking about yahoos here. All of these men and women were distinguished in their previous lives. Reed held a doctorate in education and knew education policy. Castor made education the focus of her political career. D'Alemberte and Criser had been deeply involved in public life.

Still, they were outsiders. They did not have impeccable credentials. There were faculty who believed them to be unqualified -- just as the faculty of Columbia University sneered at an unqualified boob named Eisenhower.

But if Florida's universities were political before, we haven't seen anything yet. The Legislature has voted to eliminate the Board of Regents, which had partly insulated the system from politics. In the future, each university will be governed by a local board, and by the direct whims of the Legislature.

In part because of this uncertainty, the University of Florida already has failed once in its search for a new president. Of six finalists, all academic-types, all six pulled out. What now?

The other day our governor, Jeb Bush, stirred up controversy by suggesting the search be broadened. He even suggested as candidates either of Florida's two U.S. senators, Connie Mack or Bob Graham.

The idea is really not so wild. David Boren, a former U.S. senator, is president of the University of Oklahoma. Former Sen. Paul Trible of Virginia is president of one of that state system's universities. It all depends on the person.

Sure, I hope they get the biggest academic-type possible in Gainesville. Hey, the top guy at Harvard just quit, so maybe he's available. But if they don't, then to survive in that post-regents world, I suggest they do not rule out somebody who can connive, schmooze, lie, knock heads in private, smile in public and charm boxcars full of green cash money out of donors. In short, a good politician.

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