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J.D. Alexander pursues major inquiry into university system

TAMPA — J.D. Alexander isn't backing down.

Weeks after calling for an investigation into the leadership at the University of South Florida, the powerful state senator is now taking a much wider inquiry into his own hands.

In a memo sent to the chancellor of the state university system, Alexander calls for information about spending, donations from vendors, job placement for graduates and more. In all, he outlines 11 points.

It adds to the contention that has gripped Florida's university system for months, ever since Alexander and other Polk County leaders began pushing for the independence of USF's Lakeland branch campus. A vote last month by the Florida Board of Governors, which oversees the state university, to delay the split hasn't quieted the debate. Rather, it seems Alexander is getting more involved.

First it was the call to investigate USF president Judy Genshaft after what Alexander deemed "misleading" statements to the board. Then it was the suggestion that USF Polytechnic could be given to the University of Florida while it transitions.

In his latest request, Alexander doesn't name any specific universities, but several of his questions echo concerns about USF he raised in his first letter Nov. 16.

For instance, he previously called into question a 10-year, million-dollar donation USF received from the contractor of USF Polytechnic's new campus. The Board of Governors' inspector general met with Alexander — not in his legislative role, but as a citizen — and is now in the inquiry phase of his complaint.

But now Alexander, the legislator, wants all the details of any donation of more than $50,000 given to the universities from vendors doing business with them for the last three years. And he wants to know how conflicts of interests are avoided in those cases.

That's not all.

Alexander, R-Lake Wales, is also curious about employee pay raises, executive travel, entertainment expenditures and out-of-state campuses or affiliations. He wants data on job placement results for each academic degree program. He asks for an update on how recent funding reductions may have eliminated nonpriority degrees.

He wants an update on how the Board of Governors spent the $10 million it received last year for its New Florida initiative, which supports programs that foster a "knowledge-based economy."

And he asked that it all be done by Jan. 2 — just days before the start of a busy legislative session. It's preparation for a presentation Alexander wants University chancellor Frank Brogan to give the Senate Budget Committee, which Alexander chairs, on Jan. 13.

Brogan was originally asked to detail procurement practices on Dec. 8 but was told the day before that it would be postponed and broadened based on this larger data request.

The chancellor has alerted all 11 public university presidents about Alexander's memo and asked that they be poised to help out.

Dean Colson, who will become chairman of the Board of Governors in January, had this to say: "I have talked with Sen. Alexander on a great many issues this past year, and I hope and trust that we can continue to work cooperatively with the Legislature for the betterment of the state university system."

Alexander, who leaves the Legislature at the end of the session, did not return multiple requests for comment.

This all comes after the universities just fulfilled another intensive information request from Gov. Rick Scott, who was interested in students' postgraduate success and schools' emphasis on science, technology, engineering and math programs.

Sen. Joe Negron, the vice chairman of the Budget Committee, said Alexander's request is not unusual.

"I think Chairman Alexander is well known and respected for vigorous oversight," Negron said. "To me, this is very consistent with a body of work related to legislative oversight."

The Legislature is proud of its universities, he said. By gathering more information, they can better work to build them up.

"I think it's always appropriate to look at our universities to see if they can manage better and use resources in more efficient ways," Negron said.

Kim Wilmath can be reached at kwilmath@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3337.

Digging deep

Here is some of the information state Sen. J.D. Alexander is seeking from the Board of Governors, which oversees Florida's 11 public universities:

. Provide a full and separate accounting of all university and BOG revenues, expenditures, fund balances, and restricted and unrestricted cash related to state funding … tuition and fees, auxiliaries' interest and investments, and any other related entities or sources.

. Give a degree cost comparison by university and degree. (The BOG should ensure that the comparison is based on clear and consistent accounting of overhead and administrative costs by each university.) Also provide data on job placement results for each degree. Does the BOG periodically review existing degrees and adjust program mix based on performance measures?

. Provide a full accounting of all university-related executive travel, including details on owned or leased aircraft and commercial flights and details on travel and entertainment by university for all university-related organizations.

. Detail university pay raises, by university, employee group and salary range, for the past five years.

. Provide details and related costs to universities or related entities for out-of-state programs, including international campuses and out-of-state campuses or affiliations.

J.D. Alexander pursues major inquiry into university system 12/09/11 [Last modified: Friday, December 9, 2011 9:59pm]

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