TALLAHASSEE — By definition, they're looking for an educator to be chancellor of the state university system.
By need, they're looking for a politically savvy powerhouse.
It's right there in the job description: "The best candidates will be politically astute, without being partisan, and will understand how to get things done in a state government context."
In the past, chancellors whose skills were more academic than political have suffered. And with the balance of power favoring the purse string-holding Legislature, the Board of Governors needs a political maven.
But politicians, like chancellor applicant Sen. Jim King, often come with baggage. A history of partisanship and deal-making can seem ill-suited for academia, and the lack of education credentials can affect credibility in the university community they are supposed to lead.
So, educator or politician? It's no small question at a time when expectations of excellence in higher education have been declared an economic need.
Charlie Reed, who held Florida's chancellor post for nearly 14 years before taking over California's university system, puts it this way:
"They need a professional, a real professional."
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Voters created the Board of Governors by constitutional amendment in 2002 after the Legislature dismantled the long-standing Board of Regents. The 17-member, mostly citizen body has authority over the state's 11 universities.
But the Legislature claims that authority, too, and the past several years have seen a power struggle. A 2007 lawsuit filed by former Sen. Bob Graham, the Board of Governors and others seeks to clarify the board's power to set tuition rates as well as its broad operational authority. The case is pending.
Three chancellors have served since 2002, most recently Mark Rosenberg, who left in February to return to Florida International University. By many accounts, he was lacking in political polish.
"I think he knew the process," said Sen. Evelyn Lynn, R-Ormond Beach, chair of the Senate higher education appropriations committee, "but maybe did not work it well, as well as he could have."
The board turned to University of North Florida president John Delaney to serve as interim chancellor. The former Jacksonville mayor sports political sheen and academic experience, but Delaney says his commitment to UNF and a 12-year-old son back home keep him from being interested in the permanent job.
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As the search committee, led by chair Carolyn Roberts, looks for strong candidates, some hold up former chancellor Reed as the archetype of what Florida needs.
E-mailing from a cruise in the South Pacific, Graham praised Reed's academic credentials, political skill, smarts and toughness. "We should be looking for his clone," Graham wrote.
"I tried to call them they way you see 'em and I was not afraid to look the Legislature in the eye and tell them when I thought that they were wrong or doing harm," said Reed, 67, from his office in Long Beach, Calif.
Florida's university system is one of the country's largest, with more than 360,000 faculty members, staffers and students, and a budget of more than $8.5 billion. In recent years the universities have been hit by budget cuts, enrollment freezes and prominent faculty departures.
Many say an academician could raise the level of Florida's system at a time when everyone finally agrees that's the key to turning around the economy.
"An academic pedigree clearly helps," interim chancellor Delaney said. "We're recruiting faculty, we're recruiting deans, we're recruiting presidents. And there had been the perception that because of the shifting in governance structures that we were what the Chronicle of Higher Education called 'the Wild West.' "
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Over here, though, stands state Sen. Jim King, a gregarious, likable Republican who has long served on education committees and will face term limits in 2010. He wants to be chancellor.
A consummate politician lacking academic clout, King touts his consensus-building skills, legislative experience and will to make a difference in the Board of Governors' tattered relationship with lawmakers.
"Can I do it? I think. Can it be done? I hope," King said. "And for the Board of Governors and the state university system, I hope that whoever gets that job is capable of doing that and understands the complexity between trying to have a Legislature that looks at the Board of Governors as something besides the enemy."
But hard feelings linger over King's push a few years back to put a chiropractic school at his alma mater, Florida State. Not to mention concern over his devotion to the school, which named a building after him.
"On the surface it looks like I'm a homey because I am an FSU grad, but if you review the record, the voting record and the things I've championed, I think you'll find I'm pretty much broad brush when it comes to all the universities," King says.
Plenty of people are showing support for King to be chancellor. Fellow senators, representatives, CFO Alex Sink, even the governor. But even some of those supportive colleagues think the job needs more.
"I think it's very important to have a chancellor who is No. 1 an educator, an academician, because this is a nationally recognized position and it has to do with education," Sen. Lynn said.
Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Amy Hollyfield can be reached at email@example.com or (850) 224-7263.