Letters to the Editor 10/31

Political ambiguity? Not for the BOT

During my days in USF’s administration, I, like everyone else, was cautioned against publicly taking partisan political positions. We represented the university, unlike individual faculty, staff and students, and the interests of the university transcend politics.It seemed fair enough, and USF administrators generally stick to this principle.

So, what do we make of the ongoing antics of the USF Board of Trustees, as it happily turns USF into its own private, political arena, egged on by its overseers, Jeb Bush and the Florida Board of Education? We saw the first signs of bipartisanship at the infamous BOT meeting that voted to remove a tenured faculty member. As I walked out of that meeting, I overheard one trustee chortle, “That was kinda fun, wasn’t it?” — a remark betraying a fatal mix of arrogance and ignorance, that has since been personified most publicly by our BOT chairman, Mr. Richard Beard.

Now, we hear of the BOT meeting by phone to discuss and approve resolutions opposing both the Graham amendment (creating a statewide university Board of Governors), and the class size amendment. The “discussion” takes all of eight minutes – but then we learned it was effectively ordered by Jeb himself, so no surprise there.

Elsewhere, we’re treated to the sight of trustees sporting “Bulls for Jeb” buttons while enjoying USF football games. Certainly, many faculty members are also wearing political buttons — but they do not represent the institution. Earlier, Mr. Beard, unperturbed by the national firestorm of negative publicity that has made USF an academic laughing stock, spoke to media about “setting a trap” for a faculty member. That statement forced USF’s hired gun lawyer to squirm as he tried to “distance” himself from Beard, while simultaneously trying to avoid the obvious question – if anyone speaks for USF, isn’t it surely the chair of the BOT?

Is it any wonder that many faculty members are suspicious of board members who owe their very positions to Jeb Bush and the Republicans — the same Bush who speaks of “devious plans” to weaken the power of teachers’ unions?

The truth is that Florida is witnessing what an eminent former university president calls the “new battle between political and academic cultures.” As he writes, “these are in conflict over fundamental issues that define the academy.” The Florida BOTs are nothing if not political, and they are clearly hostile to the representatives of academic culture — the faculty.

The USF BOT has consistently rebuffed attempts to secure a faculty seat at its table, while courting student leaders with private plane rides to football games. Again, it’s hardly surprising when we see to whom the BOT answers (aside from Jeb). Consider a recent position paper written by FBOE member Charles Garcia on the topic of university “accountability.” It drips with disdain for faculty and the academic process and sets out ways to trick universities into playing the measurement games the FBOE wants. After all, “The universities have many smart, creative and very tough people. … [they] will always win on their territory, which is educational content, values and substance.” So, the FBOE has to take those issues off the table in order to defeat these “smart people.”

And students, don’t imagine you’re immune. Did you think you came to the university to learn, to broaden your horizons or to open your minds? Think again; according to Garcia, “the undergraduate curriculum with minor variations is basically a commodity product.” You are the customer. And this is the FBOE’s model for your education: “The retail customer does not buy education from the state, but buys it secondhand from the university, which repackages the wholesale product (credit hours) into highly customized units sold in highly differentiated form to an end user market composed of parents and students. The parents/students take this product, and they resell it to employers … .”

Such language would be hilarious if it weren’t so sad and so dangerous. This is Florida, now proudly No. 50 in higher education spending. No matter how the election turns out, I’m not unduly optimistic about our future, especially since university administrators seem happy to roll over and allow partisan trustees to be the voice of their institutions. But if we don’t fight for some semblance of academic integrity, we have only ourselves to blame if this insidiously political culture is allowed to destroy everything we value.

Elizabeth Bird is a professor in the anthropology department.

Amendment 11 follows faculty ideas

I agree with your editorial support of Amendment 11. After hearing the debate Tuesday between the Chairman of the Florida Board of Education, Phil Handy, and Robin Gibson, who drafted Amendment 11, I am more convinced than ever of the wisdom behind the new proposal.

The Faculty Senate wrote to Gov. Bush in April 2000, long before an election campaign and an Amendment 11.

Our principles then were as follows: To prevent unreasonable competition and wasteful duplication of effort among the schools in the State University System. To provide long-range, statewide planning to meet the needs of an increasingly complex, technologically-based society. To maintain a free and independent, non-partisan faculty by providing an effective system of tenure, based on merit. To protect higher education from undue political influence.

These same principles are the ones being advocated in Sen. Bob Graham’s initiative. Vote for Amendment 11.

Jesse Binford is a USF professor.