TAMPA — A collective gasp swept across the room.
Michael Long, the lone student member of the Florida Board of Governors, had just told the audience that Sen. J.D. Alexander threatened to stop supporting higher education if the board didn't make the University of South Florida Polytechnic the state's 12th public university.
Heads turned to Alexander, sitting right behind Long. The senator remained silent.
"He is leveling his power in the Legislature," Long said. "I do not feel very well represented by J.D. and his comments."
It was an intense moment in a debate filled with fireworks. The board that oversees the state university system was about to decide whether USF's campus in Lakeland should become independent — a move, pushed by Alexander for months and opposed by students, faculty and a slew of community members.
There had been whispers that the bullish Alexander tried to intimidate the board members before the meeting. But of the 15 at the table, the 20-year-old New College sophomore was the only one to directly speak out.
The David to J.D. Alexander's Goliath.
• • •
In the scheme of Michael Long's life, this was nothing.
The tall, blond-haired, blue-eyed student body president has had his share of confrontations.
As a Sarasota teenager mixed up in the wrong crowd, Long struggled in school and got arrested for petty theft and drugs. After being sent to a program for troubled youth, Long made a change.
"Every day, I sort of stopped and slowed myself down and thought about my actions," Long remembers. "If I do this now, what will the reaction be tomorrow?"
He became the first in his family to go to college, working two jobs in high school so he could pay his way himself.
Student government was a natural fit. He liked being able to effect change on the campus.This summer, Long became the youngest member to serve on the Board of Governors after being elected chair of the Florida Student Association, made of the student body presidents of all 11 state universities.
He quickly became comfortable speaking his mind among the higher education leaders, often rallying against tuition increases and in support of financial aid.
Before each of the board's meetings every few months, he does his homework, taking time to read and think about each agenda item.
Wednesday's meeting, with the big USF Poly decision on its schedule, was no different.
• • •
In the weeks leading up to it, Long visited anyone who had voiced an opinion about the Lakeland campus's future, including Alexander. He came armed with a list of questions.
One of them: What if this doesn't go through?
Alexander would later tell reporters that he never referenced any kind of "quid pro quo" and that he's sure the people of Florida will see an independent polytechnic through even after he's out of power.
But according to Long, the senator answered like this:
Years ago, Alexander, who controls the state budget, wanted to bring a heart-health program to a hospital in his home district, but it was derailed by someone from a university in another area. After that, he said, the school that fought against him lost tens of millions of dollars.
That's politics, Long said the senator told him.
"My eyes popped wide open," Long said.
He still had questions on his list, but at that point Long said he stood up and walked out of Alexander's business office in Fort Myers.
"Everything they say about the Florida system being so corrupt, this good-ol'-boys state where nothing gets done without corruption, it kind of hit me like, wow.
"Maybe that's true."
He talked to his mother about it as the board meeting got closer. She could tell he was nervous.
"He told me he was going up against a very strong person," Denise Long said, "and he had to make the right choice for the students in our state."
• • •
The board had just heard from USF president Judy Genshaft, pleading to keep her campus together, and Alexander, who said the school could not succeed under USF's thumb.
The whole time Long listened, he was also trying to plan what he would say when his turn came to speak.
He ended up winging it.
"I am deeply disappointed by the level of politics that plays into this decision," Long said. "All the students behind me echo that sentiment."
He went on to tell the packed house about a survey that showed a vast majority of USF Poly students wanted to graduate with USF degrees and asked the board to vote down the split proposal.
But first, he leaned into his microphone and dropped a bomb.
"I met with J.D. Alexander," Long said. "And I had one question …"
• • •
Reactions to Long's comments were mixed.
A few people came over afterward and patted him on the back. Students there thanked him. Others who saw the exchange on TV or read about it in the newspaper friended him on Facebook and left congratulations on his wall.
That included Sen. Paula Dockery, who wrote, "You, the youngest member of the BOG, had the courage to speak truth to power."
More than one person suggested that next time he probably should not address the senator by his first name.
Then there was the man himself.
Heading out of the room, Long said, the two bumped into each other.
He said Alexander told him his actions were "highly inappropriate" and that he had just marred his future career.
They locked eyes for a moment, then went in separate directions.
• • •
In the end, the board imposed conditions on USF Poly that will delay a split for several years. By the time the school has a chance to ask for independence again, Alexander will be out of power because of term limits.
Long will be freshly graduated, his eyes set on politics.
Kim Wilmath can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3337.