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System failure

Mark Howard
Mark Howard,
Executive Editor

Until the past legislative session, USF Polytechnic in Lakeland was on a well-mapped road to independence from its parent, the University of South Florida. The Legislature's decision to ram the school down the state's throat as a full-fledged Florida Polytechnic University was unnecessary and unwise. The arrogance and ambition of one man, Sen. J.D. Alexander, prevailed against both a host of wiser, better-intentioned people and just plain common sense. The failure of good governance at every significant level reflects a shameful state of affairs and many steps backward in the ability to balance what's good for one part of the state with what's good for us all. Let's start from the top down:

» Rick Scott. The governor, in his support for Poly, shredded any pretense he may have had to a coherent philosophy of governance. As a matter of principle, he rejected federal money for high-speed rail (a defensible decision) to limit the state's fiscal liability for cost overruns and operating expenses. How, then, to reconcile that decision with his support for creating a university that Florida doesn't need at a time when it can't afford it? Then, after forsaking his tea party ethic, Scott threw even good conservative principles overboard by vetoing the bill that gave the other universities' the ability to move more toward market-rate tuition — essentially, a users fee approach that conservatives should like. So who is Scott? What does he really believe in? Has he decided to just try to play power politics and tough it out? And what, if anything, did he get from Alexander?

» The Legislature. The only people who matter in the Legislature these days are Republicans, and a lot of them, including the leadership, knew a full-fledged Poly was a bad idea, at least right now. Some hoped the Board of Governors would step up and dead-stop the whole Poly train; when that didn't happen, they threw up their hands and rolled over for Alexander. A wise Senate president might have advised Alexander that Poly was already on the road to independence and that Alexander would be smart to be content with moving the ball on that front rather than scoring a touchdown at a time when the state is scraping by.

There's a very dangerous dynamic at play in the Legislature: Term limits mean aspiring Senate presidents and House Speakers have to begin angling for those jobs literally from day one after they're elected — and with limited time in office, there's no wiggle room to alienate higher-ups who could derail their ambitions. Meanwhile, bully boys like Alexander know that if they're going to get their names on a state-funded project by the time they're term-limited out, they better play hardball. If there's nobody with a spine to push back, bad things will continue to happen.

» The Board of Governors. Ironically, the Poly mess highlighted the voters' wisdom in re-creating a Board of Governors to oversee higher education. Groups like the Board of Governors, whose members aren't subject to re-election pressures, presumably can step up and relieve legislators of some tough decisions — the rules of the game let the legislators fume publicly while being relieved privately they don't have to make the call themselves.

This time, the board's approach was simply too reasonable, too measured, too bureaucratic. Rather than saying that 2012 wasn't the time to push ahead with Poly and drawing some kind of line in the sand, it split the difference, laying out an organized, performance-based approach to independence for the school with benchmarks and standards. The Legislature, Alexander and Scott simply decided to ignore them. In fact, the least-discussed aspect of the whole Poly mess is whether the Legislature and Scott effectively have cut the board off at the knees. The board — written into the state's constitution — is composed of bright, civic-minded people and led by a first-rate public servant, Frank Brogan, who knows education in Florida at every level inside out. Where does the end-run that created Poly leave this group? What real authority can it lay claim to?

Scott then added more than insult to injury by announcing the creation of a "blue-ribbon panel" to study and guide higher ed. The board responded with a mealy-mouthed press release essentially saying the more higher ed groups, the merrier. When does somebody on a constitutionally mandated state governance board take a little offense at being intimidated, then ignored and overtly disrespected? I'm sure the lesson of all this isn't lost on the university and state college presidents — ignore the Board of Governors, lie low until a legislator from your region gets some juice and then grab for the gusto.

As for Florida Polytechnic itself, the irony is that the school won't benefit from being ripped untimely into being. Aside from the current confusion over construction funding and finding board members, there's the question of what first-rate academic leader is going to want to lead an institution whose real boss will remain Alexander.

Florida Poly may yet grow into a fine institution. But the way it came into being is nothing to be proud of, and it's no way to conduct higher education in the country's fourth-biggest state.


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