TALLAHASSEE — Frank Brogan sits in the basement-level cafeteria of the state Capitol and greets by name most of the people who walk by.
It has been six years since Brogan served as lieutenant governor under Jeb Bush, but he still remembers many state employees. He asks about their families, and when they ask about his, he proudly displays pictures of his 4-year-old son Colby John.
"In many ways it really is as if I never left," Brogan said.
For Florida's 11 universities, the political savvy of their new chancellor could help mend recent tense relations and budget tussles with the Legislature.
Two months into the job, Brogan, 56, is focused on thawing the ice. A former education commissioner, he is well-versed enough in Florida politics to know universities won't get a lot of extra money in the midst of multibillion-dollar budget deficits. So he's targeting what he can fix: boosting cooperation between universities and the lawmakers who decide their state funding.
The first step on Brogan's to-do list: resolve a 2007 lawsuit in which the Board of Governors joined former Gov. Bob Graham to challenge the Legislature over its tuition-setting authority.
Brogan is negotiating with leaders in the Legislature to pull the board out of the lawsuit, in hopes it will prompt the other parties to drop the whole thing. Such a move would make many lawmakers more open to universities' pleas for money.
Graham, for one, said he isn't interested in settling the lawsuit just to appease legislators.
But Sen. Don Gaetz told the Times/Herald he isn't interested in hearing any pitch for state dollars until the lawsuit goes away.
"Frank Brogan's a realist," said University of Florida president Bernie Machen. "He understands that even if they want to give us a lot of money now, they can't. So this is a time to mend relations, and that's why he's focusing on the lawsuit. Just taking it away will immediately improve our relations with a lot of legislators."
The state university system has lost nearly half a billion in recurring state funding since 2007. The 2010-11 Florida budget forecast calls for another $2-billion deficit. Knowing there will likely be no windfall of new cash, the Board of Governors' budget request for the 2010-11 year is just $64,000 more than the current budget of $5.6 billion.
But in meetings with lawmakers and speeches to community groups and business leaders, Brogan is making the case for future funding that is "predictable and steady." But still higher.
The Legislature's passage last year of a bill that raises tuition every year has given universities a taste of it already.
"It is the commitment we should be after first, and then we can plug in the amounts of money as this unfolds," Brogan said, "even if it means starting with a little bit this year and increasing it over time."
His political pitches are even funny at times. In a meeting with lawmakers this month, Brogan stepped up to the microphone right after the state economist gave another dour prediction of deficits and job losses.
He quipped dryly about the pressure of "coming on after that bright news" and then segued into promoting the universities.
"The forecasts continue to be very challenging for all of us," Brogan said. "But that makes the timing ideal to invest in higher education. … Universities are a fulcrum for changing the economy."
In exchange, he is heeding lawmakers' calls for more accountability in the state's higher education system. The Board of Governors last month laid the groundwork for a system requiring universities to better track data like graduation rates, spending and degrees issued.
"He's coming in a time when a lot of people are willing to look at higher education and how it's funded, how it's held accountable, in a new way," Rep. Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, said of Brogan. "So it's good opportunity for us to start on a new leg and strengthen things with the Board (of Governors) and universities and the Legislature."
Brogan's arrival also comes as lawmakers confront the reality that a Florida economy based solely on growth and tourism is no longer tenable, making them eager to build what Sen. President Jeff Atwater calls a "knowledge-based economy."
That means turning to universities to produce the kind of research and technology-based work force employed by biomedical powerhouses like Scripps Research Institute or the Burnham Institute. Brogan knows those facilities well, having served alongside Jeb Bush when the former governor lured the companies to Florida with incentive money.
"Money is tight, resources are very tight," Weatherford said. "But if you look at the investments the Legislature has made in terms of large economic development projects recently, most of them have been on a campus or right next door. Universities are the future of the economy."
A coordinated system
One of Brogan's greatest challenges, however, might prove to be the new system of community colleges — now called "state colleges" — that are increasingly offering four-year degrees. In guest editorial page columns and speeches around the state, Brogan warns that the current system lacks coordination between the community colleges, state universities and private universities. Bachelor degree programs "can pop up anywhere," Brogan says, inviting "wasteful duplication."
He wants a more coordinated system where the various institutions and business leaders map out a strategy for the "wise use of scarce higher education dollars." To that end, Brogan is working to build relations with the Board of Education, whose leaders oversee the K-12 system, community colleges and the newly designated state colleges.
This month, he and the Board of Governors held the first-ever joint meeting with the Board of Education. It was a small but significant step, said Brogan.
"With or without money, I think we have an opportunity to take some major steps toward where we need to be for our higher education system and our state."
Shannon Colavecchio can be reached at email@example.com or (850) 224-7263.