Floridians moved closer to deciding how public universities are run Thursday, after the state Senate passed a bill (33-4-3) that would let voters amend the constitution, reshaping the management of the State University System (SUS).
If the bill is approved by the state House of Representatives, a referendum will be on the ballot in November’s election legislatively defining the Board Of Governors’ (BOG) powers, a shift away from the BOG’s somewhat autonomous status.
The law would also create the office of an elected commissioner of education, who would oversee how the BOG picks university trustees, the people in charge of organizing the day-to-day operations of SUS schools. The commissioner would also create and oversee a new Florida College System, which would be state community colleges’ answer to the BOG.
BOG members have decried the move, saying it will make the board dependent on the Legislature and pit universities against each other in competition for politically volatile pork.
Proponents of the bill, however, said it would provide accountability in higher education and tie up legal loose ends that have been unresolved since the BOG’s creation, especially those pertaining to the relationship between the BOG and the Legislature.
“The Board of Governors is independent from the Legislature; the new board would not be independent,” BOG Spokesman Bill Edmonds said. “It would be subservient to the Legislature. Its powers and duties would be defined by the Legislature. We don’t yet know what those powers and duties would be because (the legislators) haven’t said.”
Cathy Mears, spokeswoman for Senate President Ken Pruitt (R-Port St. Lucie), countered that the proposed changes were necessary, especially in light of the BOG and Legislature’s recent dispute over whether the board has the right to set university tuition. The BOG sued the Legislature in 2007, saying the state constitution gave it the right to set tuition, but the lawsuit has since been dropped.
Tension between the BOG and the Legislature still exists, however, as SUS institutions are scraping to find the financial resources to educate students amid statewide budget cuts, and many university leaders want tuition increased to account for the shortfall.
“We set (tuition in) 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, and we’re going to set it again in 2008,” Mears said. “This constitutional amendment provides the clarity we think is necessary and sends it before the voters in a clear and transparent vote on the delineation of power between the Legislature and the Board of Governors.”
BOG Vice Chair Sheila McDevitt said she was not surprised by the Senate’s decision.
“It was disappointing, but expected,” she said.
For McDevitt, the bill threatens the stability of SUS because it could lead to the SUS being governed by a third organization within a decade. Before the BOG was created, the SUS was run by the now-dissolved Board of Regents.
“It creates a great deal of uncertainty, volatility and chaos in our higher education system, and in a national respective, it creates a very unsettled perspective,” she said, adding that instability posed a challenge to hiring.
“The second basic reason is that the amendment, regardless of how it’s cast in the Senate, does abolish the Board of Governors as it exists today and does reconstitute a new Board of Governors.”
She said the BOG under the Senate’s plan would derive its authority from the Legislature rather than the state constitution.
“We believe that the politics as a result of the system under that bill would not be healthy for the system, because (the bill) would create the opportunity for whoever happens to be in power to favor the institution that’s in their district against others,” she said.
“We would not be lobbying as a system but lobbying as individuals for dollars.”
Rep. Ed Homan (R-Tampa), who represents the district in which USF is located, said he wasn’t sure how the bill would do in the House of Representatives, but that he generally supported a more independent way of managing the SUS.
“I have a little biased opinion about it,” said Homan, who is an orthopedic surgeon and teaches in USF’s College of Medicine.
“I think the role of the Legislature is to fund the universities, and then that’s it. Give them as much money as you can, then give them a Board of Governors or a Board of Regents or whatever you want to call it and stop meddling with it,” he said.
He said that if the bill reached the House floor for a vote, he would “probably vote against it” if it remained in its current form.
Homan also said the Legislature wanted to improve education, but its members differed as to how that should be done.
“Certainly, our school administrators and teachers want the same result as the Legislature and the governor want: the best possible schools,” he said. “Let the politicians quit trying to do their job for them.”
Sen. Victor Crist (R-Tampa), who represents the district in which USF is located, voted for the bill. He said his vote did not convey patent support of the bill but was rather his way of answering constituents’ concerns about how higher education was managed.
“I have heard over and over again from people that they want accountability,” he said.
“When you’re an elected official, you have to take the time to go to people, meet with people, and listen and learn about their concerns. You cannot run wild as a cowboy. You have to be receptive. And if the public wants a more receptive system, having an elected official as the education commissioner, this referendum will provide them with the opportunity to choose.”
If the bill made it through the House and onto the ballot in November, Crist said he doesn’t know how he would vote.
“I don’t know yet,” he said. “I’m not out there supporting or opposing it either way. I voted today to give people the choice of which method they prefer.”
Senior Vice Provost Dwayne Smith didn’t come out strong for or against the bill.
“It may be a little too early to make specific comments on it, because we want to see what it looks like in its final form,” he said.
He did have a general comment, however, about the bill’s effect on the perception of Florida’s higher education system.
“The concern I’m hearing from people is that the state is developing a reputation of being unstable in terms of its leadership on higher education,” he said.
Sherman Dorn, associate professor in the College of Education and president of USF’s chapter of United Faculty of Florida, was staunchly against the bill and said he thought it spelled trouble for the state’s future.
“It’s the wrong decision at the wrong time for the wrong reasons,” he said.
According to Dorn, the threat of instability could drive faculty from the state, as worried professors will have to begin looking for new out-of-state jobs long before any definitive decision is made.
“If this gets on the ballot because the House goes along with Senate President Pruitt’s desire to strangle the BOG’s authority, faculty will not wait to see what the voters do,” he said. “The budget situation as it is, we’re going to lose faculty because we cannot stay competitive with other states. If voters approve a third change of governance in a decade, we will see a tidal wave of faculty leaving the state.”
McDevitt said she thinks the bill might not survive the House, but she will work to prevent its becoming law.
“The reason we have two chambers in the Legislature is to balance power, and I have faith that the right thing will ultimately occur,” she said.
“If this thing goes to the ballot, I will be happy to spend my time as an individual citizen raising money and running up and down the state opposing it.”