On first

Published: Sunday, January 8, 2012 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, January 6, 2012 at 9:12 p.m.

After he became governor, in 1945, Millard Caldwell decided that the University of Florida was in desperate need of reform.

Specifically, he wanted to reform UF’s habit of regularly getting pummeled by football rivals Georgia and Auburn.

Caldwell demanded the Board of Control (ancestor to today’s Board of Governors) do something to “produce a winning football team.”

Like fire the coach.

Which goes to show you that even the top guy can’t get his way just by saying “make it so.”

More than half a century later, politicians and academicians are still trying to get their arms around this slippery issue of just who is in charge of Florida’s universities.

And so far, a state constitutional amendment passed in 2002, ostensibly to make universities less vulnerable to political meddling, seems to have resolved nothing at all.

True, an appellate court has ruled that the Legislature, not the Board of Governors, has the power to set tuition. But now the original backers of the amendment initiative, including former Gov. Bob Graham, are asking the Florida Supreme Court to review that lower court decision and “end the confusion” over tuition.

You want to talk confusion? These days, the power politics surrounding Florida higher ed resembles the old Abbot and Costello “Who’s on first?” routine.

On first you have Gov. Rick Scott (fewer anthropologists, more engineers) embracing Texas-style higher ed reform; which basically means merit pay, watered-down tenure and business-style accountability measures.

All of these management “reforms” would seem to be the constitutional purview of the Board of Governors, not Scott or the Legislature.

On second base you have state Sen. JD Alexander, trying to strong-arm the Board of Governors into making the University of South Florida’s Lakeland campus (in Alexander’s district) a free-standing university.

Having failed, at least so far, Alexander has now launched a major investigation (witch hunt?) into University of South Florida spending and fundraising.

Incidentally, when USF President Judy Genshaft recently fired the administrator of the Lakeland campus, she got a strong rebuke from two members of the Board of Governors (on third?) for overstepping her authority.

Which is the Board’s right. Right?

Maybe not. Shouldn’t it be up to USF’s own Board of Trustees to chastise its president?

And then there’s Scott’s recent public call for Florida A&M University’s president to be suspended in the wake of the apparent hazing death of a marching band member.

Apparently, this time somebody on Scott’s staff actually did read the constitutional amendment. Scott later demurred, “I will abide by the decision made by” FAMU’s Board of Trustees.

So who is on first?

I don’t know. I don’t think anybody knows.

All I know is that Florida lost to both Georgia and Auburn this year. And if somebody doesn’t do something to “reform” that, there will be consequences.

Ron Cunningham is editorial page editor of The Sun. Contact him at voice@gvillesun.com or 374-5075.

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