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Board's political heft matters

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© St. Petersburg Times,
published July 1, 2001

TALLAHASSEE -- Toward the close of the introduction of Florida State University's new board of trustees, Lt. Gov. Frank Brogan, the master of ceremonies, remarked that he couldn't linger for the reception to follow. He needed to go home to change ties before his next presentation at the University of Florida.

Everyone laughed.

But I don't believe they were amused down at Gainesville, where it would take more than an orange and blue tie in place of garnet and gold to persuade the Gators that they had fared as well.

And it wasn't just because Gov. Jeb Bush, who was about to leave on vacation, didn't accompany Brogan to the rival campus.

The big difference, the one that really matters, was in the political heft of the two boards. On that score, Florida State was the clear winner. It boasts former House Speaker John Thrasher, whose influence with the Legislature (and with Bush) is immense (and who makes no secret of wanting to be FSU's president some day); Steven Uhlfelder, a former chairman of the Board of Regents who, though a Democrat, endorsed Bush's election; former FSU President J. Stanley Marshall, who is close to Bush and House Speaker Tom Feeney by way of the arch-conservative James Madison Institute, which Marshall founded; and former Supreme Court Justice Alan C. Sundberg, who is influential in the legal community. No one on the UF board swings that kind of weight, and only its former president (and ex-regent), Marshall Criser, a Jacksonville attorney, comes close.

Bush's new boards are short on academicians and top-heavy with Republican businessmen, which was to be expected. To make that point misses the larger one. Few academicians ever made it to the Board of Regents, which the individual boards replace, but that board took it as its duty to make sure that the chancellor's office, which administered the system for them, put academics first. Every chancellor was an academician; the best of them, Charlie Reed, was also a superb politician. That's the void the new non-system doesn't promise to fill.

But there is a problem even larger than that. Until recently, the Regents kept both parochial and partisan politics out of the process of deciding which university got what money. The Regents sent a consolidated budget request to the Legislature, which, until recently, respected it and had no use for freelancing by FSU, UF or anyone.

Previously, it was "each university grab what you can," as former Rep. Robert T. Mann, who represented Hillsborough County, recently recalled it. And there were only four -- not the current 11 -- when the Legislature got fed up.

Bush, who avidly pushed the Regents' deconstruction after he and Thrasher hatched the scheme on a cocktail napkin, continues to insist that the Regents had outlived their usefulness.

"If anybody thought that the Board of Regents controlled how the money from the Legislature went to the universities, they weren't around when I was here for the last three years," he said the other day. The new state Board of Education, he said, "certainly can do as well as what the Board of Regents did, if not better."

That's right to a point, but only to a point. It was the beginning of the end for the Regents when the Legislature ignored their objections to a medical school for Florida State and law schools for Florida A&M and Florida International. Thrasher, a passionate FSU alumnus, was speaker then.

But it's misguided and unfair to blame the Regents, when it was the Legislature that disdained rules by which 15 previous legislatures and seven governors had abided. The Legislature having learned to disrespect -- and in consequence, to destroy -- the Regents, what is to make the Legislature now respect the new Board of Education?

That's why the political clout of each new university board matters so much more than it ought to.

It is also why my fellow Seminoles shouldn't let themselves feel too comfortable atop the present heap. Political power shifts as inexorably as the dunes of a desert or the shores of a beach. Thrasher's best buddy will be governor for at most five more years; term limits will also toll on the entire Legislature. Meanwhile, the vast bulk of Florida's voting population (and legislative strength) is south of the I-4 corridor, where it is inevitable that alumni of their universities -- especially South Florida, Florida International and Florida Atlantic -- will eventually replace FSU alumni in the seats of Tallahassee power in the same way that the Seminoles supplanted the Gators. And then what?

The best hope -- the only hope -- for the older schools lies in the initiative campaign led by Sen. Bob Graham to establish a North Carolina-style system, where the individual boards would be supervised by a statewide board which the Legislature would be bound to respect.

The latter part would be the harder; as the governor alluded, the Regents lost power only because reckless legislators usurped them. How does one put that genie back in the bottle?

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