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Interim president may keep UF reins

A committee of the regents, whose search collapsed, wants Charles Young to take the permanent job. The chancellor is optimistic that he will.


© St. Petersburg Times, published July 21, 2000

TALLAHASSEE -- A Board of Regents committee said Thursday that it wants interim President Charles Young to become the permanent leader of the University of Florida, a move that apparently will end a search marred by frustration and failure.

Young, the former chancellor of the University of California, Los Angeles, has not yet accepted the job, university system Chancellor Adam Herbert said after the committee's unanimous vote.

But Herbert said he and Young have had several conversations in recent days, including one Thursday morning, and he is optimistic Young will agree to stay on.

"The sense I have is, he is very receptive to the idea of remaining permanently," said Herbert, who said he expects Young, 68, will serve for several years.

"I think we're very lucky to get someone of Dr. Young's caliber," said Orlando regent Jim Heekin, the committee's chairman.

Herbert said he will begin contract negotiations as soon as possible. He hopes to have an agreement in hand before the regents' next meeting, which is scheduled for September.

This latest twist in the search for a leader to replace John Lombardi was a major surprise, especially at UF, where Young has charmed much of the campus community.

Most people there, however, assumed personal issues would make it impossible for him to take over permanently.

His wife, Sue, is gravely ill with breast cancer. It was unclear whether Young could even continue serving as interim, let alone become the next president.

Young, who was not at the regents meeting, could not be reached for comment. He flew back Thursday morning to Southern California, where his wife has been receiving treatment. That's where he has spent most of the last month.

Not that anyone minds in Gainesville.

"I think he's the best thing that's happened to this campus in a very long time," said Joe Layon, chairman of UF's faculty senate.

While Lombardi did a lot of positive things for UF, Layon said his management style tended toward the dictatorial.

Not so with Young.

"He is smart enough, and secure enough, to know there's more than one way to skin this cat," Layon said.

If Young does accept the presidency, no one will be happier than the regents, who have watched their search for a new leader collapse in an embarrassing fashion.

Just two months ago, they were touting the quality of their six finalists, all but one of whom was a veteran president.

Then, one by one, they started dropping out.

Several said they withdrew because of uncertainty regarding major changes in how Florida's university system will be governed. Those changes include the regents' abolishment in 2003 and the creation of separate boards of trustees at each institution.

Bill Funk, the executive headhunter who helped compile the field that self-destructed, has spent much of the last month trying to determine whether there was any point in reopening the search.

He told the regents Thursday there isn't.

In addition to concerns about the governance changes, at least four other major universities are currently searching for presidents, Funk said. They are Harvard, Indiana University, the University of Wisconsin and Iowa State University.

Given that kind of competition, he said, it would be very difficult to attract top candidates to UF.

That's what makes Young such a godsend, Herbert said.

"We've had an opportunity to assess the prospects of a continued search against what we have now: one of the best college presidents in the country," he said. "We would never have found a candidate of this caliber."

In academia, where credit tends to be grudging, Young is widely regarded as one of the most successful university heads of the last quarter-century.

He was just 36 when he became chancellor at UCLA in 1968. He remained there for 29 years, completely transforming the institution.

UCLA had only one endowed professorship and an operating budget of less than $200-million when he arrived. By the time he left, the number of endowed chairs exceeded 120 and the total budget was approaching $2-billion.

Young was appointed interim president at UF in November. He has spent much of his time fundraising, even while in California, where he sits on the boards of companies such as Intel.

Lombardi was a charismatic leader, and so is Young, said Paul Robell, UF's vice president of development and alumni affairs.

"Donors relate very well to both of them," he said.

Jim Scott, UF's vice president of student affairs, said he hopes to increase Young's profile with students.

"He hasn't had a lot of interaction with students," Scott said. "That's something our students are very much used to. . . . In reality, Dr. Lombardi was a unique and special president and we'll probably never have anybody who could relate to the students like he did. Certainly we want to create some opportunities for Dr. Young to interact with students."

For the most part, Young has stayed out of the news while at UF. The only exception was his sharply stated opposition to Gov. Jeb Bush's plan to eliminate the use of racial preferences in university admissions.

Young was at UCLA when Ward Connerly, a California regent, helped pass a similar initiative there. The result, Young said, was disastrous.

He predicted a similar result in Florida, and expressed amazement at the speed in which such an important change was being pushed through the system.

Young later backed off, saying he was misunderstood. That was after Herbert made it clear he expected all of his university presidents to toe the line on the admissions issue.

But that was then, Herbert said.

Now Young has other things to worry about, including filling several high-level vacancies.

The university is looking for a permanent provost, a vice president for academic affairs and deans for five of its largest colleges, including law, education and engineering.

"There is a lot to do," Herbert said. "We will move forward as quickly as possible."

-- Times correspondent Beth Kassab contributed to this report.

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