Battle over FSU school turns into soap opera

Published: Thursday, January 13, 2005 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, January 13, 2005 at 12:36 a.m.


Differing opinions

  • Opponents at FSU have circulated a faux map of the campus, placing a "Bigfoot Institute" and a "Crop Circle Simulation Laboratory" next to the proposed school.
  • Advocates say out-of-state agitators are responsible for stirring the pot. They hope creating the nation's first public chiropractic school would set them further on the path to legitimacy.

  • TALLAHASSEE - A soap opera writer pressed into developing a political saga might purloin the story lines from the battle to create a chiropractic school at Florida State University.
    "It's the most amazing thing I've seen," said Carolyn Roberts, the chairman of the state's Board of Governors, which will likely vote on the school's future in two weeks.
    Roberts is no political neophyte, but the Ocala Realtor can't remember such byzantine controversies coming together this way.
    FSU's board of trustees is expected to approve the school on Friday, sending it to a final vote at the Board of Governor's meeting Jan. 27 in Gainesville.
    Faculty members at the university have threatened to quit if the chiropractic school, which they deride as pseudo-scientific quackery, becomes reality. They've circulated a faux map of the campus, placing a "Bigfoot Institute" and a "Crop Circle Simulation Laboratory" next to the proposed school.
    Advocates of the school say out-of-state agitators are responsible for stirring the pot.
    They portray their field as a solid, scientifically based profession that has helped millions. They hope that creating what would be the nation's first public chiropractic school would set them further on the path to legitimacy.
    Roberts said the merits of chiropractic medicine aren't the board's concern.
    "Our issue," she said, "is to protect the universities" from programs that aren't needed or cost too much.
    Who makes that decision is the other battle. Beyond the well-aged argument over the validity of chiropractic medicine lies a political battle between old-school lawmakers who forced a pet project into the budget and a new leader in the Senate eager to clean the Legislature's image.
    Rather than waiting for FSU to ask for the school, Republican Sen. Dennis Jones, a chiropractor from Pinellas County, and powerful FSU alum Sen. Jim King, R-Jacksonville, forced the issue by making an unusual $9 million allocation for the school a make-or-break budget deal last year.
    And the university has angered some members of the Board of Governors by advertising an opening as the chiropractic school's head before the board has voted.
    "Something," Roberts said, "is out of sequence."
    As opposition to the school mounted, some faculty felt that public opposition to the school would bring retribution from the Legislature, which controls their budgets.
    That brought Senate President Tom Lee, R-Brandon, out of his seat. He called members of the Board of Governors and university officials to reassure them that no retribution would happen under his watch.
    Lee said board members told him they were "disgusted" at the pressure they were receiving to approve the school.
    "It became clear to me," Lee said, "that what had gone on behind the scenes was far worse than what was going on in public."
    King, however, said he has not threatened anyone and added that it was "insulting" for faculty or others to even assert he would do something that would harm his alma mater.
    To help ensure the integrity of the system, Lee said he will push to ban lobbyists from sitting on university boards, saying it provides a conflict when legislators come making demands.
    "The truth of the matter is (a board position) is a political patronage that often exists to hand these things down to major donors," Lee said. "We have 17.4 million Floridians and we can't find 100 talented people that don't butter their bread in the Florida Legislature to serve. I mean, give me a break."
    Another fight centers on the battle among universities, the state's Board of Governors and lawmakers over who has the final authority to decide what happens.
    When the Board of Regents, which used to run the State University System, denied then-House Speaker John Thrasher's demand for a medical school at his beloved Florida State, he killed the board and funded the school. In 2002, voters approved a constitutional amendment that reinstated a state board, the Board of Governors, to oversee universities.
    A lawsuit filed last month by former state university system chancellor E.T. York of Gainesville claimed the new board hasn't been granted the autonomy to challenge legislative pet projects such as the chiropractic school.
    Thrasher, who is chairman of the board of trustees at FSU, derided the lawsuit as "sour grapes" from University of Florida supporters angry to see the political pork going to Tallahassee.
    A signal of how the Board of Governors may vote comes from Gov. Jeb Bush, the man who appointed them.
    Bush had previously vetoed spending for the chiropractic school, but relented last year in an effort to get what he called a "dysfunctional" Legislature to agree on a budget bill. Bush recently said he harbors no kinship for the school.
    King said he "would have appreciated it" if Bush asked the board members to support the school. As part of the deal to secure funding for the school, King said he agreed to help Bush gain legislative approval for a $300 million-plus incentive package for the Scripps Institute to create a research program in Palm Beach County.
    "I adhered to my part of the bargain," King said. "I wish that the governor would be of help."
    Roberts declined to speculate on how her fellow members on the Board of Governors will vote. But she said one criteria, also cited by Bush, is the ability of the private Palmer College in Port Orange to supply chiropractors in the state.
    "I've heard they will graduate as many as necessary," Roberts said.
    Jones, however, said putting the school at a public university will make tuition cheaper and open it up to minority students.

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