The fix appears to be in for Florida Atlantic University president Frank Brogan to be named today as the next chancellor of the state university system. The field of finalists is predictably weak and shrinking, given the continuing cloud over the governing structure of the system and the state's lack of commitment to investing in higher education. Brogan has the political pedigree and a solid record at FAU, and if he applies himself he may be able to help bridge the widening gap between the ambitions of the universities and the willingness of the Legislature to invest in them.
The irony, of course, is that Brogan is seeking the job he helped neuter as Gov. Jeb Bush's lieutenant governor. It was Bush and Brogan who pushed the plan to abolish the Board of Regents that oversaw state universities and allow the governor to appoint boards of trustees for each of the universities. The result is that the university system is not really a system at all but 11 fiefdoms engaged in an arms race to add duplicative programs even as they compete for fewer tax dollars. Brogan would be trying to bring some cohesiveness and vision to a dysfunctional system he helped create.
It is natural to long for another Charles Reed, who was chancellor of Florida's state university system in the 1980s and '90s and now oversees the California state university system. Reed was a charismatic, forceful advocate for higher education in Florida. He had the skills to push stubborn university presidents and powerful legislators in the direction he wanted them to go. But the sad reality is that the job is not as powerful as it was in Reed's era. There is the new Board of Governors that was created after former Gov. Bob Graham — once Reed's boss — led a drive for a constitutional amendment in 2002. But the school trustees pick university presidents, not the Board of Governors. The Legislature votes on the university system's budget, and there is a legal fight over whether lawmakers or the board should be setting the rules for tuition increases.
Brogan demonstrated at FAU that he can offer more than comic relief as Bush's sidekick. During his six years at the Boca Raton school, he has raised the university's admission standards, overseen more than $250 million in construction projects and helped open Scripps Research Institute's operations at the school's campus in Jupiter. Brogan's additional experience as an elementary school teacher, middle school principal, county schools superintendent and state education commissioner also would be useful. He could be an advocate for better coordination between what public school students should learn to be successful in college and what college students should learn to enter a changing work force. His outgoing nature and polished political skills could make him an effective force with the Legislature, if he will talk frankly about the universities' considerable needs.
The challenges facing Florida's universities are considerable. If Brogan is looking for more than a ticket back to Tallahassee and a bigger paycheck, he has an opportunity to make a difference in a university system he once helped undermine.