Board of relevancy


Published: Tuesday, January 11, 2005 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Monday, January 10, 2005 at 10:56 p.m.

The state's university system has enough problems to cope with without the potentates of the Florida Legislature trying to run its classrooms.

That's why the university system was once governed by a Board of Regents that tried to insulate it from legislative interference.

But after the Regents rejected then-Speaker of the House John Thrasher's pork-barrel request for a medical school at Florida State University (his alma mater), Thrasher teamed up with Gov. Jeb Bush to abolish the Regents.

The Regents were replaced by individual boards that ran each of the universities. They operated under the umbrella of a Florida Board of Education, which pays more attention to the Legislature than to the needs of the universities.

In 2002, then-Sen. Bob Graham got a constitutional amendment on the ballot that created the Board of Governors - something along the lines of the old Board of Regents, but supposedly more independent.

Local boards would remain, but the state board would be removed from strong-arming from legislators. The amendment passed with 61 percent of the vote.

Bush has retained influence through his appointments to the Board of Governors, diminishing its independence. So a group of lawyers and educators have filed suit.

The group, Floridians for Constitutional Integrity, includes a former Florida House speaker, two university professors and a former general counsel to the late Gov. Lawton Chiles.

Gainesville's E.T. York, former state university system chancellor and one of the litigants, said the new structure provides "an excellent government system. What we need to do is implement what we have in place. ... It's not being implemented appropriately."

In other words, the Board of Governors is being too deferential to the Legislature and the executive branch.

York cites two examples: Last year, lawmakers approved a chiropractic school for Florida State University. It was a pet project of then-Senate President Jim King, R-Jacksonville.

The Legislature also approved an Alzheimer's Research Center at the University of South Florida - a pet project of then-House Speaker Johnnie Byrd, R-Plant City.

And just to make sure their dreams stayed live, the Legislature approved giving $9 million to the chiropractic school and $15 million to the Alzheimer's center every year without any further review.

It didn't matter that neither project was sought by USF or FSU. Nor does it matter that the chiropractic school will be the only publicly funded school of its kind in the nation.

Regardless of the benefits or drawbacks of either project, the impetus for them should come from the university system, not from legislators.

Asked about the backlash against the chiropractic school at FSU from faculty members who questioned it, King told the St. Petersburg Times: "I would also suggest that (professors) evaluate with their department heads what kinds of cuts there will have to be (should the chiropractic school be derailed). I think the Legislature would be angry."

To his credit, new Senate President Tom Lee, R-Brandon, doesn't believe such bluster is the way to build a world-class university system. Lee reportedly made assurances that the Legislature will not retaliate, and he warned colleagues against behind-the-scenes arm-twisting.

The Board of Governors, which has not considered either project, is scheduled to review FSU's application for the chiropractic school at its Jan. 27 meeting. Reportedly, about 500 FSU faculty members have gone on record in opposition to the new school.

It's the cart-followed-by-the-horse timing. The Legislature already has deemed it necessary, and set aside $9 million a year in perpetuity to support it. Gov. Bush let it become law last spring, but now says he wants the automatic annual appropriation repealed.

And now the folks the governor appointed are being asked if it's a good idea. On Jan. 27, they will have their chance to become relevant.

Will the Board of Governors exercise its constitutional obligation to set policy and priorities for the university system? Or will it sit by and allow lawmakers to do so?

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