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    A Times Editorial

    Universities in the political muck

    © St. Petersburg Times, published September 17, 2000

    Florida's Education Transition Task Force, meeting for the first time last week, was told that its mission is "not about abolishment of the Board of Regents" but rather "much, much more than that." So said outgoing House Speaker John Thrasher, the regents' arch-enemy, whose appointment to the task force supposedly sealed their fate.

    Despite Thrasher's bias, the point was partly true. The state Constitution, as revised two years ago, requires a new education structure by January 2003. It provides only the barest outline: Seven people appointed by the governor will replace the governor and Cabinet as the state Board of Education and will appoint the commissioner of education, which has been an elective office since 1885. Countless details and many major policy decisions await.

    However, what happens to the universities remains very much a part of it, despite the Legislature's spiteful vote to predetermine the outcome by abolishing the regents and establishing a trustee board at each of the 10 universities under the aegis of the Board of Education. The Constitution Revision Commission did not intend for the Board of Education to oversee the universities in addition to the public schools, so the task force first needs sound, independent legal advice as to whether the courts would allow it.

    Meanwhile, the nasty political infighting over where to situate the new Florida A&M University law school is vivid proof why the Board of Regents, or something like it, needs to remain in business beyond 2003.

    Without the regents, FAMU could be victimized in the power struggle between Senate President-designate John McKay, R-Bradenton, who wants the school in Tampa, and House Speaker-designate Tom Feeney, R-Oviedo, who is carrying Orlando's flag. McKay threatened at one point to withhold funding for the law school if it didn't go to Tampa. Everyone knows the school is too important to the minority community for McKay to do that, but there are many other ways for a vindictive legislative leader to take reprisals.

    This ugly scene is a mild preview of what happens if the universities must compete directly for funds and influence without the regents to set priorities and run interference. Each one's welfare will depend on the rising or waning power of its patrons in an increasingly parochial Legislature. The adjective that comes to mind is medieval.

    Some argue the regents have already failed to keep the system out of deep political muck. As proof of this, they point to three costly new ventures -- two new law schools and a medical school -- the regents didn't want. This begs the reasons. For more than 30 years, legislators and governors respected the authority of the regents. Now they don't. The failure is theirs, not the regents'.

    Some also say that at the end of the day the regents will be restored, if not by that name, then by another, but in such a way as to purge those who resisted the new law and medical schools. What an interesting outcome that would be.

    Meanwhile, the Bush administration appears to be signaling the task force to go beyond governance matters to consider "competition," with all the privatization and voucher baggage that implies. Of concern in this regard: The only parent representative on the task force, a Bush appointee, is a school "choice" advocate whose child attends a Pensacola private school on vouchers. The task force will have more than enough to do in restructuring management. Hot-button policy disputes should be left to the Legislature.

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