Rearranging the Deck Chairs

The signatures have been collected, lost, found, counted and confirmed. It's official: A plan to restructure Florida's higher education system will be put before state voters Nov. 5.

Amendment 11 on the ballot, the proposal started as a gleam in U.S. Sen. Bob Graham's eye. If passed, it will create a statewide governing board to manage the university system in concert with the current local boards of trustees appointed by Gov. Jeb Bush last year.

The amendment would rip a tear in the Bush's "seamless" education system and both sides are preparing for a battle.

According to Education Excellence for Florida, the group that organized around Graham's idea and gathered the signatures required to get it on the ballot, the new board of governors will do a better job of managing the university system than the state Board of Education.

That newly created board has enough on its hands with managing kindergarten through high school, said Roy Weatherford, a supporter of the amendment who is also president of the University of South Florida's faculty union. But what Weatherford really feels will improve the current system is the constitutional status of the board of governors.

"The main thing it will do is insulate it from political currents," said Weatherford.

The plan centers around the idea that in order to have a first-rate university system, that system needs protection from the very same people who are elected on claims that they want a first-rate system. The board of governors would essentially work to keep legislative hands out of university affairs.

It's been widely speculated that the board of regents, which previously oversaw the university system, met its demise at the hands of powerful legislators. The regents rejected the notion that a medical school was needed at Florida State University or that Florida A&M and Florida International universities needed law schools.

They argued that enough of these expensive programs existed around the state already. Former House Speaker John Thrasher, a Bush devotee and FSU alumnus, reportedly did not like the decision of the regents.

The regents were ignored and the three new programs were approved by the Legislature. Thrasher later helped Bush come up with the new educational plan that abolished the regents.

Now universities are supposed to have local control. But that too is subject to the whims of politicians.

When the University of Florida's Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences was directed to cut its budget by more than $3-million, it decided to close a research facility in Bradenton. The problem was that it was located in Senate President John McKay's district.

McKay not only blocked the move but also took steps to ensure the facility could never be closed.

However, there may be no way to keep legislative hands out of universities, said Dick Beard, who chairs the USF Board of Trustees. "I think it's hogwash that the Graham amendment would have any impact on that," Beard told Weekly Planet. "As long as the Legislature has the money, they have some control."

And he may be right.

The amendment would require the Legislature to allocate university funding by giving the board of governors a lump sum for infrastructure and a lump sum for operations. The board of governors would then divvy the sums up among the state's universities as it saw fit.

Only the board of governors could create new programs, like medical schools, or close them down.

The Legislature has the right to appropriate funding to individual institutions and programs and it will not give that up without a fight. The matter would almost certainly be decided in the courts and the outcome could go either way.

If the amendment did win, it's possible that the new system would be less politicized. The new board of governors would have both faculty and student representation, something that's lacking in the system now. It's unclear how much influence they'd have, though, with 15 of the 17 board members appointed by the governor.

The local boards of trustees would remain in place with additional gubernatorial appointees and members representing faculty and students. But their duties would be ambiguous.

Carolyn Roberts, who sits on the Florida Board of Education, has formed a political action committee to fight Amendment 11. It doesn't make sense to have more than one board be in charge of university campuses, Roberts said.

It would be up to the board of governors to decide what powers the local board had and whatever powers they're awarded could be taken away.

"One board could decide that the local boards should be able to hire university presidents and then a new board could decide that the board of governors should be able to hire presidents," she said.

The board of governors would just add an extra layer of bureaucracy, according to Roberts.

Weatherford sees it more as a buffer. Currently, the boards are stacked primarily with white Republican businessmen. These aren't people who should be making decisions for a university, said Weatherford.

"They want to run the university like a business," he said. "Sometimes they want to run it like Enron or WorldCom and sometimes they want to run it like a 7-Eleven where employees don't have job security or decent wages. They don't seem to want to run it like a university."

The old board of regents would never have moved to fire a tenured professor in the manner that USF has tried to fire Sami Al-Arian, a tenured professor of engineering, said Weatherford. And the $81,000 pay raise that Florida International's board gave its president at a time when tight budgets were forcing cuts all over wasn't a university-like decision, Weatherford said.

Beard refused to comment on the Al-Arian termination and can't say much about Florida International's decision, though he suspects it was a good one. He said he doesn't see how those incidents point to any shortcoming with local boards of trustees.

He was a member of the old board of regents and he points out that it wasn't exactly rife with academics or people with experience in running a university system either. Many on the board were businessmen like him.

Beard has heard the argument that universities are not like businesses before and he's able to make that distinction. "The university's mission and goals are not that of a business," he said.

The board recently responded to the need to increase the capacity of USF's nursing school in response to the state's shortage of nurses, said Beard. Everything does not come down to the bottom line, he says, and the board is capable of looking at the school's standing from national and international perspectives.

While the trustees did recommend that USF President Judy Genshaft terminate Al-Arian, Beard said, they don't have the power to fire anyone themselves. Ultimately, the president runs the university, he said.

The American Association of University Professors has threatened USF with censure if Genshaft goes through with the firing.

Academia is a culture that places a higher value on intellectual ideals and the AAUP carries a lot of weight in that realm. Attracting top intellectual talent will be more difficult if the school is censured and the university's reputation among serious students may be undermined.

If Amendment 11 doesn't pass, it's likely that the local boards will be given more power during the 2003 legislative session. That could include the power to fire anyone from faculty to presidents, set admission standards and raise tuition.

Currently, the boards don't have a balance that suggests that they can accurately weigh the practical needs of a school, like fundraising and spending money judiciously, against the more abstract need to create an environment that fosters intellectual growth.

In the end, it comes down to the question of local control versus state control.

Whichever side wins, the future of Florida's universities will remain in the hands of the governor and legislators. They are the only ones who can stop legislative abuse.

Graham's plan was based on North Carolina's university system, which has a top-notch reputation. However, it's not just the structure that got them there. North Carolina has a reputation of funding quality institutions, and undermining education for political gain is not the order of the day.

Florida ranks 49th in the country when it comes to funding educational needs, said Weatherford. Money is the real issue, he said.

"It will be difficult for any governing body in the world to create a first-class institution with a 49th-class budget," he said. "But if you have to have a 49th-class budget, you can at least have a first-class governance system."

Or maybe voters should look at more than just the constitutional amendments when they vote for better education at the polls this fall.

Contact Staff Writer Rochelle Renford at

813-248-8888, ext. 163, or e-mail her at

[email protected].