Governing the State University System: Do we really need a Board of Regents?
A. Joseph Layon, MD
There has been much publicity and minimal dialogue between educators and political appointees related to the proposed abolition of the Board of Regents of the State University System [SUS] here in Florida.
Despite the importance of the SUS to the people of Florida and to the state's economy, the Educational Governance Reorganization Transition Task Force, appointed by Governor Jeb Bush and the Legislature to recommend a new governance system for the SUS, has recommended--and has effectively completed--the abolition of the Board of Regents of our SUS. Further, the Presidents of the 10 campuses seem supportive of the destruction of the Regents, with the University of Florida's President Charles E. Young stating that the new governance system "structured and managed prudently" will be beneficial to the University of Florida and the other campuses of the SUS. This appears to be the consensus of the Presidents, from FIU to FSU.
What do these obviously very bright individuals know that we do not? Does the abolition of the Board of Regents mean more freedom, a more streamlined, responsive and effective SUS? Will this new governance system benefit the people of the State of Florida, in whose name we operate and who, after all, are our employers?
Most of these questions are not answerable. Whether this new system-- whatever shape it takes-- is good for our State will only be known some years after the system is in place. The new system is an experiment. As academics and scientists, we faculty at the University of Florida, and the other nine campuses of the SUS, are familiar with and fond of experimentation. Looking at old things from a different angle is what we are about. "Change" is our middle name.
Experiments are not carried out in a vacuum, however. The scientist designs an experiment first by asking a question, then by reviewing background information related to that question, and finally by setting up an experimental system to answer the question. So what is the question being asked by the Transition Task Force? What are the background data? How are we to answer the question?
What is the Question?
Why does the Transition Task Force wish to write the Board of Regents out of the SUS governance equation? The official story is that the 1998 Florida Constitutional revision demands it. However, Article 9, which was revised and deals with education, very clearly states that the State Board of Education should deal with pre-kindergarten through 12th grade [free public education], not the Community College or State University Systems. So this is not the question to which an answer-- restructuring the SUS-- is sought. The rationale for restructuring is to be found elsewhere.
The Board of Regents was created to, among other things, rationally allocate resources and programs. This, so that the State of Florida did not end up with 10 programs in Nuclear Engineering, when one was needed, 10 medical schools when three are sufficient, and so forth. When, during the last legislative session, law makers requested that the Regents create a new medical school at Florida State University and new law schools at Florida International University and Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University, the Regents determined these programs to be unnecessary. The Legislature then voted to abolish the Board.
The Board does the job for which it was created--granted, sometimes making errors--and is written out of existence by the Legislature of the State of Florida. And the cover the Legislators use is a Constitutional Amendment that does not deal with the SUS and was never intended to do so, as is clear from the minutes of Florida Constitution Revision Commission that recommended the revision.
What are the background data?
What were the circumstances that brought the Board of Regents into existence? Are these circumstances so changed that we might now eliminate the Board?
Our legislature acted to create a [relatively] impartial and non-political Board of Regents in the 1960s for essentially two reasons; one related to open and obvious political manipulation of the SUS and the other related to the needs of the space age. The two are related.
The open interference of the Johns Committee--named after its Chairman, Charlie Johns of Starke--in the running of the SUS was one reason. This Committee of the Florida Senate was appointed in 1956 to search out and eliminate communists, gays, and others who were considered deviant and dangerous. In reality, this Committee of the Florida Senate sought to discredit those opposed to segregation. Such opposition was, in the eyes of some legislators, evidence enough of "deviance". For nine years this Committee "investigated" the private lives of faculty and students, eventually dismissing 39 professors and deans from three of our Universities, and revoking 71 teaching certificates.
In 1962, the Board of Control, which had been put into place in 1905 and was the predecessor to the Board of Regents, authorized a commission to study the needs of the SUS in the context of the science needed to put a man on the moon. In its report, the Space Era Education Committee stated that the higher educational system in the State of Florida had been detrimentally politicized in its every day functions by the State.
As a result of these events, the Board of Regents was created on 1 January, 1965 to bring balance, order, and rational educational decisions to the competing demands of the individual institutions. Another purpose was to minimize the inappropriate interference of the Governor and Legislature on the SUS.
Some might say that this is all well and good, but that such interference and petty behavior simply couldn't happen today. Further, say some, a governing Board is unnecessary because the University Presidents will cooperate and coordinate on a rational basis. Two recent examples suggest otherwise.
In 1990, the National Science Foundation presented a grant to the collaborating forces of Florida State University [Tallahassee] and the University of Florida [Gainesville]. This resulted in the relocation of the National High Magnetic Field Laboratory [the "Mag Lab"] from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to Tallahassee, to be managed by the two Florida institutions. Several years ago, in what appeared top be a power play, the Presidents of FSU and the University of Florida publicly battled for control of the Mag Lab. This could have resulted in the loss of the laboratory and associated federal funds [worth about $ 171 million by 2005]. The Board of Regents intervened to terminate this power play. While one does not know how far this situation might have gone without the intervention of the Board, it is just one example of how the spirit of competitiveness may sabotage collaborative projects that depend on the strength of more than one university for success.
The temptation of the Legislature or Governor to intervene inappropriately in the management of the SUS is another concern. Recently, we have been reminded why this remains so. After Donna Shalala, presently the Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services and formerly the Chancellor of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, was hired as the next President of the University of Miami, two legislators threatened to withhold State funds that go partly to the University of Miami's Medical School. Their concern over some Clinton Administration policy seemed to be the motivator for this move. Senator Johns may be gone, but the impulse to interfere with the academic mission of our University System is not. If the legislators feel they can threaten a private university in this manner, what will they do to our State University System?
How are we to answer the question?
If the "experimental" question here is anything, it is a puzzle. Why the Governor and the Education Governance Reorganization Task Force wish to abolish the Board of Regents is not easily explained without reference to the above-noted background data. Although the individuals involved in attempting this change are honorable, they clearly are not fully aware of the chaos with which the SUS is threatened by their precipitate action.
The University Presidents' actions are perhaps more understandable. Within six months, the Governor is to appoint 10 individual Boards of Trustees that will have the power to hire and fire the Presidents of the Universities they oversee. This power provides incredible control over the top university administrators. Individuals such as the University of Florida's President Charles E. Young are very competent and bright leaders, yet they must plan ahead for what appears to be an inevitable future.
The Faculty Senates in the SUS want carefully considered, rationally implemented improvements to the SUS. We do not want to stand in the way of real progress. But the changes to Florida's State University System are too rapid, radical, untested, and politically motivated. Because we have a responsibility to speak truth as we see it, the Faculty Senates of the SUS have opposed the reorganization plan of The Transition Task Force.
The following should be seriously discussed in any plan for revising SUS governance.
A great deal is at stake. There is little time to lose.
Dr. Layon is Chair of the University of Florida Faculty Senate, Professor of Anesthesiology, Surgery, and Medicine at the University of Florida College of Medicine, and Medical Director for the City of Gainesville Fire Rescue Service.
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