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Clout Kicks Education Off Campus

CLOUT KICKS EDUCATION OFF CAMPUS

Stebbins Jefferson

"They all have access to the governor . . . They'll all get their calls returned," remarked FAU President Anthony Catanese, commenting on the newly appointed FAU Board of Trustees. "It makes us politically very strong."

Dr. Catanese's honest, forthright assessment of his board - which includes some of the most influential people in South Florida with connections throughout the state - is on target. While some faculty members and other academic types quibble about the appointees' qualifications for running an academic institution and board diversity, the unvarnished truth is that beginning July 1, the future progress of each of Florida's 11 universities will almost exclusively depend on the clout of the members of each board of trustees. This spring, the state Legislature preordained this reality when it overhauled the Board of Regents system of governance that for more than 30 years had supervised the public universities. Created to eliminate turf battles among institutions and reduce the blatantly disproportionate allocation of state money, the Board of Regents had only within the past decade begun to implement those goals. This accomplishment did not sit well with some members of the Legislature, such as FSU graduate and former House Speaker John Thrasher, who wanted to award his alma mater a medical school. When the regents did not approve that plan, they had to go. Objective application of power to serve all without catering to powerful interests is rarely tolerated in state politics.

As regards the power potential of respective trustees, FAU, FIU, FSU, USF and UF are poised for continuing advancement. Consistent with their ranking as orchestrated by former Chancellor Adam Herbert, Gov. Bush has appointed to these boards trustees with influence sufficiently strong to maintain these institutions' previously assigned status as top-level universities. In the future, other universities are not likely to fare as well when state money is divided. And predominantly black FAMU, one of the state's three oldest universities, can forget any promises made to advance its status under the old system.

Now, it's back to the future. The regents will be replaced by individual boards of trustees for each university. Members will serve four-year terms and receive no salary. Each board (consisting of 13 members, including the student body president) will have power to handle policy decisions, set the budget, approve new degree programs and hire and fire the president.

The new state education structure also includes a reconstituted Board of Education that will oversee kindergarten through graduate education. But be not deceived. The greatest power lies in the hands of the trustees, whose strength emanates from their powerful connections more than any authority vested in them by law.

And therein lies the rub. In a democracy, government structure is supposed to be designed to protect equally all citizens and institutions. When structures are changed, it should be in the direction of increasing those protections, not toward perpetuating more power to the powerful. The latter is the case in this situation, as parity throughout the university system will not be the concern of each board of trustees. Their focus, as assigned, will be to support and nurture their assigned institution. I understand that commitment and applaud their willingness to serve.

I grieve, however, the loss of the semblance of fairness our state had achieved in dealing with its universities. For the first time in Florida history, my alma mater, FAMU, had received significant fairness in state support that under the new system is unlikely to continue.

In times of crisis, our governor has told us repeatedly that ours is a nation of laws. To avoid chaos, we should respect law as the final arbiter. Noble thoughts intended to keep our democratic government strong.

Keeping that faith, however, becomes doubly hard when minority citizens perceive that elected officials are committed to reversing minority progress.

Stebbins Jefferson is a columnist for The Palm Beach Post.

Originally published in The Palm Beach Post on Saturday, June 30, 2001.

 

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