Who Governs Higher Education? Initiative Will Let Voters Have a Say

Article excerpt

Byline: Beth Kormanik, Times-Union staff writer

As soon as the Legislature demolished the Board of Regents in 2001, a group led by U.S. Sen. Bob Graham began working to restore it.

Now voters will decide how the state should best govern colleges and universities and whether higher education belongs in the Florida constitution.

Amendment 11, also called the Graham amendment, would reverse the Legislature's "seamless" model of education. That model consists of an appointed board of education to supervise kindergarten through graduate school and individual boards of trustees to guide each university.

The new system's backers say it barely has had time to get started -- it officially goes into effect in January -- but proponents of the amendment say they want to give higher education constitutional protection to prevent legislative interference and a spoils system.

"It's like being on the Titanic and you see an iceberg. Do you want to wait to hit it or make changes before you go under?" asked Alice Skelton, campaign manager of Education Excellence for Florida, the group sponsoring the amendment.

Also backing the amendment are the United Faculty of Florida and the Community College Faculty Coalition of Florida.

"The best universities are developed over decades and in states that put a lot of effort to isolate universities from political pressure and political manipulations," said Tom Auxter, president of United Faculty of Florida. "They develop out of their own teaching and research missions."

The state's Council for Education Policy, Research and Improvement was unable to determine the cost of the proposed changes. Skelton said the amendment would save money through an economy of scale: having one system conduct collective bargaining and lobby the Legislature, for instance, instead of each university going it alone.

Those against the amendment say the new system has not been given a chance to succeed.

"I don't think it's appropriate for anyone to tie our state into a governance system that may not be appropriate in the future," said Carolyn Roberts, a member of the state Board of Education and a former regent. "The universities are working well like they are and we need to give them the opportunity to flourish."

Roberts, who leads the Floridians for Education Reform effort against the amendment, said writing a board of governors into the state constitution makes the structure permanent and inflexible, but keeping the system statutory would give legislators the ability to tweak it to fit current-day needs.

The state Board of Education opposes the amendment, along with the State University Presidents Association, the Florida Association of Community Colleges and the Florida Community Colleges' Council of Presidents.

Trustees at the University of North Florida have not taken a stand on the amendment, but chairwoman Carol Thompson said voters should wait to see if the current model works before trying another.

"This would create more instability when we're beginning to stabilize," she said. …