TAMPA — Leading the state universities' governing board during a time of major budget cuts and power struggles with the Legislature is not a task for the faint of heart.
Enter Sheila McDevitt, a longtime corporate lawyer with a blunt tongue and an appetite for challenges.
"I'm pretty decisive," says McDevitt, who retired last summer as general counsel for TECO Energy.
She'll have plenty of challenges in the next two years. McDevitt, 61, was elected recently by her peers to serve as chairwoman of the Board of Governors, the 17-member group that oversees Florida's public universities.
She takes over at a time when the constitutionally created board is locked in a legal battle with legislators over tuition-setting authority. When universities are losing so much in state funding, they're losing top faculty members to states with less financial uncertainty. When the board's power over state universities is being challenged by lawmakers and even some university leaders.
You're taking over during a difficult period. What's at the top of your priority list?
One is to begin having meetings with the governor's office, the outgoing and incoming (House) speakers and (Senate) presidents and the education chairs in both chambers. … The question is, what can we do to make this group of universities work together better. The system approach during this time of lean resources is more important than ever. Because when you have no money and one university with clout goes out and gets something for themselves, it means it's taking away from other universities.
I also want to resolve, or begin to resolve, how we can develop a formula for appropriate and predictable funding.
You spent a lot of time in Tallahassee this past session, and it was obviously a stressful time for the board. What did you learn?
The leadership is more "What I say goes" than when I worked in the Legislature 30 years ago. But as you get away from the leadership, people's views are different. … A consistent view is they don't understand why individual presidents are trying to go out and get more for themselves when the system as a whole is promoting something else. It's confusing for us as a board; it's confusing for the people who provide the resources to the universities; and it's confusing for the smaller universities with less clout.
What do you want to see happen with the tuition lawsuit? Settle? Keep pushing?
I'm not interested in "winning a lawsuit." I want to begin these conversations and see if we can get to a place where we can agree. What you want to do is reach an accord where everyone is at least slightly miserable or slightly happy. Usually that means both sides got something. But you can't get everything you want.
How concerned are you about the budget cuts facing universities, and this ongoing loss of top faculty members to other states?
I'm very concerned. Those kinds of faculty, like the USF robotics professor, are what elevate schools and put them on the national radar. I don't like to see it. But I don't know what the answer is.
We're looking at state funding and tuition, but we also need to look at what universities get from their foundations and what other private help universities can get. We are in a situation no different than nonprofits that rely on state money and now are getting less of it and so they have to look more at private funding.
Shannon Colavecchio-Van Sickler can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3403.