Florida Senate President Ken Pruitt tried Tuesday to portray his attack on the university Board of Governors as a principled stand against the excesses of "an unelected board." But we've seen this script before, and the plot is driven by political ego and personal spite.
Pruitt is angry at the board for limiting enrollment in the face of dramatic financial cutbacks and for raising questions about the viability of his favored $399-million Bright Futures scholarship program. So he hopes to follow in the footsteps of former House Speaker John Thrasher, who in 2000 abolished the then-Board of Regents for refusing to endorse a new medical school at his alma mater.
Pruitt's order is taller. The board he would put on a leash was written into the Constitution in 2002 by voters who were trying to prevent future John Thrashers from interfering.
That hurdle with voters may explain why Pruitt used his opening-day speech to cast the Board of Governors as somehow an enemy of the voters: "Do they want an unelected board to set tuition, or do they want their Legislature — a body elected by the people — to set it?"
What Pruitt didn't say is that the amendment he would put to voters in November goes well beyond the issue of tuition. It would abolish the current 17-member board and all the constitutional language aimed at insulating universities from political interference. In its place would go an eight-member board whose job description would be written solely by the Legislature.
In the same amendment, Pruitt also would include the wholly separate issue of whether to elect the state education commissioner. Bundling the two is clear evidence he fears the university question might fail on its own merits, but it also further complicates the debate. Would the elected education commissioner then take the place of the university chancellor?
Presiding officers often use their institutional leverage for personal causes, but only with the consent of 158 other elected members of the House and Senate. In this case, Pruitt is asking them to turn the university governing system upside down for the third time in eight years, and no one can credibly defend that. The effect would be disastrous, particularly in a time of financial tumult, and the message to academia would be profound.
Lonnie Ingram, a University of Florida distinguished microbiology professor who holds 15 U.S. patents, understands the implications. "Stability is needed in our state university system," he wrote Monday, "to create a climate of professional creativity and educational opportunity, essential to the hiring and retention of outstanding faculty members."
If Pruitt succeeds, he might as well point faculty to the state border. This is reckless policy, made all the more shameful by the personal pique that motivates it.