Monday, August 20, 2018
Opinion

Ruth: USF learns the hard way not to trust the Florida Legislature

Do you remotely suppose there just might be something rotten in Tallahassee?

Or perhaps the real lesson here is that while you should be afraid, very afraid, when the Florida Legislature goes about its business during the day, it is when the sun starts setting and things grow dark that the gremlins haunting the Capitol go about their mischief.

At the University of South Florida everyone was bopping along, singing a song, secure in the quaint belief that the gathering of beagles in the Florida Legislature would soon bestow pre-eminent status. It is a big deal. Being a "pre-eminent university" would mean USF stood to gain millions in additional funding along with the two other "pre-eminent" schools, Florida State University and the University of Florida.

The prestigious designation would enhance USF's efforts to attract faculty and students and pursue research grants. To become "pre-eminent," USF expected to meet the Legislature's planned graduation rate benchmark of 50 percent within four years, because it is at 54 percent.

USF had good reason to think things were smoothly moving through the Florida Legislature, which was probably its first mistake. After all, the legislation was first introduced in January and had passed House and Senate committees.

But Friday, on page 232 of a 292-page higher education bill, someone had made a slight change, upping the graduation standard to be granted pre-eminent status from 50 to 60 percent. Is not life full of mysteries?

The Florida Legislature had months to dither over the graduation rate question. And yet it was not until the literal final hours of this year's session that the rules were changed, the goalposts moved, the deck stacked.

In any crime a simple question is asked. Who had the means, motive and opportunity to do the dastardly deed? Well, you don't need to be Miss Marple to figure out both UF and FSU certainly had a monetary interest in depriving USF from gate-crashing the largess.

Forgive some cynicism here, but is it possible the Blofeldesque cat-stroking former House speaker, state senator and now FSU president John Thrasher might have whispered into the ears of Senate President Joe Negron? Thrasher, who denies it, may not have stabbed USF in the back. But it's not so farfetched to wonder if he provided the knife. It's merely an idle thought. Probably nothing to it. Never mind.

Remarkably, while USF was being served a steaming pile of Tallahassee cronyism, not one member of the Tampa Bay legislative delegation — Republicans or Democrats — raised a peep of protest that the region's most influential institution of higher learning was being given the bum's rush. We finally have a brief moment of bipartisanship, and it involves a red badge of porridge.

Full disclosure. I am a visiting professor for USF's Honors College, which is made up of the university's best and brightest and highest-achieving students. One of the alluring things about the Honors College is you get to create your own class. And it's entirely possible this episode could inspire a semester dedicated to the duplicity of the legislative process.

Reneging on what seemed to be a done deal in the waning hours of a legislative session is hardly unique to USF. Tallahassee has a long, checkered history of scruple avoidance.

Whether it involved ignoring voter-approved measures such as medical marijuana, or dedicating funds for land conservation, Tallahassee has treated the citizenry as an annoyance to be barely tolerated.

And let us not forget it was House Speaker Richard Corcoran who promised a new era of transparency only to start cutting deals behind the scenes with Negron to the exclusion even of committee chairs. It's tempting to be outraged. But nobody believed Corcoran in the first place. This is Tallahassee, where one's word is … fluid.

It is quite common in university settings for faculty members to require students who miss a class because of a medical issue to bring a note from their doctor. I don't do that.

I tell my charges if they have to miss class because of illness a doctor's note is unnecessary. After all, they are adults. They are also Honors College students. Their word is good enough.

It's a pity — but not surprising — that the Florida Legislature woefully falls short of that standard.

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