Ron Cunningham: Breaking down the wall between politics and universities
Published: Sunday, January 13, 2013 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, January 11, 2013 at 11:53 p.m.
When President Kennedy announced the goal of putting a man on the moon, Florida almost immediately hitched its wagon to JFK's lunar express.
Then-Gov. Farris Bryant commissioned the Space Era Education Study because he understood that Florida's higher education system, conceived in the horse-and-buggy era, was woefully unprepared for the challenges of the space age.
In laying the groundwork for the establishment of the modern State University System, that study warned against the poisonous influence of politics in university governance.
"An imposed routine of political flavor, delay, intrusion of wholly extraneous factors and depreciation of higher education is present in one form or another in practically every aspect of the state's daily operations in higher education," the report said. Political meddling "shackles research and teaching, instead of freeing these priceless ingredients of progress…Continuation of this system would destroy all possibility of achieving greatness for Florida in the space era."
Thank goodness we managed to get the politics out of higher education. Otherwise our universities would be in a real mess.
Don't get me wrong. I'm glad that Bernie Machen has changed his mind about retiring and is staying on at UF ... for at least a little while longer anyway. Personally, I think the Innovation Square initiative alone will cement Machen's legacy as one of UF's more visionary presidents, and the success of that initiative is far from assured.
But whether you are pro- or con-Machen, the abrupt termination of the UF presidential search process says something not very reassuring about the state of politics in Florida higher education in the era of global innovation.
Either Gov. Rick Scott woke up one day and said to himself: "By gosh, it just occurred to me that Bernie's my guy and he needs to stay."
Or the quality of available candidates was so embarrassingly low for what should be the premier higher ed job in Florida that the searchers began to panic and begged Machen to reconsider.
What academic "superstar," after all, wants to run a university that has endured five years of budget cuts in a state whose governor thinks the liberal arts is a communist conspiracy and where powerful legislators routinely create new med schools and law schools and polytech palaces simply because they can?
We thought we were taking the politics out of university affairs when Floridians created the Board of Governors as a constitutional entity. But the reality is that the board has never even tried to assert its constitutional authority and has routinely deferred to a Legislature's pork-barrel approach to higher education funding. And frankly, there is little reason at this juncture to believe that the Board of Governors is ever going to grow a backbone.
That's because Rick Scott has already figured out how to break down the constitutional wall of separation between politics and university policy making. He's doing it by methodically replacing members of the Board of Governors and university trustees with his political cronies.
This week alone Scott announced five appointments to the 17-member BOG. "I'm going to appoint people who believe the way I do, that we've got to look at every way we can to figure out how to keep tuition as low as possible," Scott told the Tampa Bay Times recently.
Which raises an interesting question. Machen himself hasn't been very forthcoming about exactly what it was that Scott said or promised to get him to stay on, other than some vague commitment to support UF's quest to become one of the nation's top 10 public universities. "The commitments should become clear when the governor releases his budget in the next few weeks," Machen said in an email to The Sun.
Well, we know that the budget probably won't include higher tuition, so presumably Scott will be asking for more general revenue support for the universities.
Sort of like last year, when he insisted that the Legislature put one billion additional dollars into public education.
Which, of course, only partially made up for the education cuts Scott himself signed off on just the year before.
So here's the question:
Is Machen really staying on because Rick Scott woke up one morning and suddenly realized that "Bernie's my guy?"
Or is he being kept on as a sort of presidential placeholder ... someone to mind the shop until Scott has embedded a sufficient number of governor and trustee appointees to be able to start hand-picking his own university presidents?
Cynical? Maybe. But the history of university decision-making in Florida is the story of cynical politics writ large. Anybody remember the Johns Committee?
"Continuation of this system would destroy all possibility of achieving greatness for Florida in the space era," the 1963 Space Era Education Study warned.
It's like the ink never dried on that report.
Ron Cunningham is former editorial page editor of The Sun.