TALLAHASSEE — Amid a clamor to overhaul a state university system lawmakers say isn't cutting it, Sen. John Thrasher wants to ban lawmakers from holding jobs with public colleges and universities they fund.
Given past scandal, Thrasher said it's best to eliminate the "conflict of interest."
But Thrasher is the same lawmaker who, as House speaker in 2000, helped secure a new medical school at Florida State University that higher education officials resisted. Then he helped eliminate the state board that opposed it.
In a speech opening the legislative session, House Speaker Dean Cannon said Florida's public university system is "racing toward the middle," a hodgepodge of schools with no clear mission and overlapping agendas.
And he put part of the blame on lawmakers.
"We, as a Legislature, and I freely include myself in this critique, have contributed to the problem by parochially advancing the interests of our local university or college at the expense of the system as a whole," Cannon, R-Winter Park, said.
He echoed recent demands by Gov. Rick Scott that universities must prove their value to the state's economic bottom line.
Starting with several bills this session to create bigger change later, Senate President-designate Don Gaetz promises a revolutionary effort when he takes over that will "lash" the state's primary and higher education systems to its economic needs.
But deeply vested interests, at universities and in the House and Senate, are among the most formidable walls to significant overhauls.
"The alumni and the members of the Legislature that come from different regions are always anxious to advocate for their university," said H. Lee Moffitt, House speaker in 1982-84. "That's normal and that part of the process is never going to go away."
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Higher education has long been thorny in Tallahassee.
Over the past decade, the boards running public universities have been broken and re-created. Powerful lawmakers slip themselves into decisions about campuses in their districts or at their alma maters, if not onto schools' payrolls.
Most recently, Senate Budget Committee Chairman JD Alexander has been criticized for pushing the University of South Florida's Lakeland campus toward independence — a move that was opposed by students, faculty and USF administrators before the Board of Governors managing the state's higher education system voted to delay it. The campus is in Alexander's home Polk County.
Then there are the paychecks.
In 2008 then-Speaker Ray Sansom landed in trouble by taking a job with Northwest Florida College after helping dole out millions to the school. That year, a Times review found 18 current or recently retired lawmakers who worked in the higher education system — two-thirds sponsoring bills or serving on committees overseeing college budgets. Today, Senate President Mike Haridopolos has a teaching job with the University of Florida, among other lawmakers on school payrolls.
The oversight of the state's 11 public universities also has been contentious.
As speaker, Thrasher helped abolish the Board of Regents, which had more direct oversight of the system. It was replaced with a Board of Governors, and each university then created its own board of trustees.
Lawmakers, meanwhile, still set tuition and budget.
"I think the change and turbulence in the structure has been a problem over time," said House Education Committee Chairman Bill Proctor, chancellor of private Flagler College. "I don't think we've had the strong central board that we have needed for a variety of reasons, probably the growth factor and the new universities and the pressure to build universities."
Cannon echoed the sentiment in his opening remarks to the Florida House. "We have a Board of Governors unsure of how to exercise its authority or execute its mission," he said.
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Reform won't be easy, said David Spence, president of the Southern Regional Education Board and an executive in Florida's higher education system in the 1980s and '90s. The state's diversity alone is a hurdle.
"I've had my chances to help things along in this state. I may have helped some, but the same challenges still remain," Spence told the House Education Committee this month.
University leaders have long relied on lawmakers for money for new buildings and maintenance. It was a growth strategy that faced little resistance when the economy was flush. No more.
Scott and top lawmakers want more emphasis and spending on science, technology, engineering and math ("STEM") to better match new workers' skills to needs of the economy. In a preview of the maneuvering, University of Florida president Bernie Machen and Florida State president Eric Barron said they want to be able to charge higher tuition for so-called STEM degrees — a touchy question.
Lawmakers also have questioned whether the universities have "mission creep" and their programs ought to be pared to reduce duplication. Medical schools are a top example.
Though cautioning of crimping essential undergraduate programs, University of North Florida president John Delaney said, "I think it's 100 percent appropriate, particularly at the graduate level."
In a hint, Proctor of the House committee asked for some schools' best five programs. "It is the beginning of a dialogue that I haven't had before, so it seems like we are headed in the right direction," said Machen, part of a parade of school presidents speaking to Proctor's panel this month.
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With a nod to the vested interests, future Senate leader Gaetz and incoming House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, intend to line up the issue to tackle it after they succeed Cannon and Haridopolos.
This session lawmakers have vetted broad ideas such as basing funding on factors such as timely graduation rates, completion of STEM courses and retention of low-income students. A Gaetz bill creates a $15 million incentive fund for universities for top technology programs. It also demands the state publish annual pay trends associated with degrees, and he wants middle and high schools to focus more on STEM linked with higher education institutions.
"The fact is, higher education is beginning to get the kind of attention that it has long deserved," said state university system chancellor Frank Brogan. "It requires everybody to be on a very similar page, too. I think we're getting there."
David DeCamp can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/DeCampTimes.