Updated 11 months ago
In the short term, the disquiet has to do with how power is distributed among the Legislature, governor, educational bureaucracy and administrators of the state's colleges and universities. In the longer term, the issue is what sort of places the schools, particularly the universities, should be.
The biggest player in the dynamic is, of course, Jeb Bush. The governor's A-Plus program has had a dramatic impact on K-12 education in Florida. But moving the glacier of higher ed his way has proved more difficult, even though the dominoes have fallen mostly in Bush's favor. The Legislature killed off the old Board of Regents in 2000 and created the governance model that Bush wanted, placing higher ed under the "seamless" K-20 umbrella of the Board of Education. Bush gained even more leverage because he got to name all the trustees to the new boards of each university and community college. He picked bright, accomplished, ethnically diverse people -- who, of course, happen to be almost all Republicans.
Former Sen. Bob Graham's successful constitutional initiative in 2002 created a crease in Bush's new educational fabric by re-creating a body, the Board of Governors, specifically to oversee higher education. But the governor kept it from splitting the seams by simply stocking it with people who hadn't wanted it to exist in the first place. Predictably, the Board of Governors has taken a somewhat nonchalant approach to its constitutionally mandated duties.
Meanwhile, Bush pushed on toward his end game: A redefinition of higher education with more emphasis on countable inputs and outputs. I think Bush views himself, at heart, as a CEO rather than a traditional politician or "governor." He clearly believes that the point of big enterprises, including state university systems, is not getting a little bit done while keeping all the stakeholders feeling good (a politician's view), but rather to get as much done as possible, hurt feelings be damned.
And, of course, Bush has very definite ideas about what the universities should do: Produce graduates in fields he and the job market consider useful. (Large numbers of psychology degrees seem to bother him to no end.) And, of course, he wants efficiency: If one school can output a useful graduate (a nurse, for example) in six months for $59.99, the governor basically doesn't believe other schools should spend any more or take any longer. The suspicious view of Bush is that he wants to turn the whole system into a giant trade school. The more generous view is that he just wants to give the ivory tower a needed shove toward real-world accountability.
So who's unhappy and why?
For all the progress he's made toward his goals and all the levers he now handles, Bush isn't satisfied. He can't control the Legislature, which continues to cough up higher-ed hairballs such as the laughably unnecessary chiropractic school it wanted to drop on FSU.
The Legislature, meanwhile, is also disgruntled, having been rudely reawakened to the notion of checks and balances. The alarm clocks? A First District Court of Appeals decision last year implied that the Board of Governors might have the authority to run the whole higher-ed show. In addition, a group of Graham's friends, including former Chancellor E.T. York, have filed a suit asking the courts to define the Board of Governors' powers and take it out from under the Board of Ed's umbrella. One way or another, the legislators worry, their role in higher-ed could be reduced to appropriating a big lump sum of higher-ed money and trundling it over to the Board of Governors, which would make all the decisions about how it got spent.
The legislators would probably be happy to leave sticky policy questions to the Board of Governors. But the prospect of losing control of the money -- and the skybox at the football game and being unable to get their term-limited names up on a building somewhere -- is more than they can stand. And so they're hard at work on measures, including Rep. Dudley Goodlette's House Bill 1001, to try to "harmonize" the whole system by clearly defining the roles of the Board of Governors and the Legislature. It's tough, however, to sing piously in the Choir of Principle with a Chiropractic School Hangover ringing in your head.
Meanwhile, university presidents and administrators are just as agitated as the state legislators. They knew how to play the legislative lobbying game under the old rules. And they've been able to co-opt Bush's appointed trustees effectively enough that the trustees haven't created too many waves back on campus. But they're still scared to death of Bush. And the idea of having to go beg before a Bush-appointed Board of Governors has renewed their fervor for checks and balances along with the Legislature's.
The ironies in all this are almost uncountable: Opponents of the Board of Governors ending up on the board they opposed; the Legislature, barely five years after dancing on the Board of Regents' grave, edging toward defining the Board of Governors in almost the same terms as the old Regents. The biggest irony: Graham's amendment and York's lawsuit could produce a Board of Governors that's not, as they intended, a defender of traditional higher education. Instead, it may become the vehicle that serves perfectly Bush's desire for control and could conceivably vest the governor with more power and control over the universities than he ever could have arranged on his own.
Such are politics and the laws of unintended consequences. The headlines will follow Goodlette's bill and York's lawsuit. Real, substantive matters -- Bright Futures scholarships and the whole issue of financial aid; money to pay for growth and ensure the quality of undergraduate instruction; African-American retention and graduation rates; producing more teachers, research funding, etc. -- remain only whispers. They are always matters, it seems, for another day.
Mark Howard can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.