The time has come to bring political calm and financial stability to the Johnnie B. Byrd Sr. Alzheimer's Center and Research Institute in Tampa. Finding a cure to this debilitating disease is far too important for the institute to continue in a perpetual tug of war over power, money, turf and ego. State lawmakers should fold the institute into the University of South Florida. That would add accountability, protect Byrd in these difficult economic times, provide stable leadership and further the institute's research mission.
Five-million Americans, including nearly a half-million Floridians, suffer from Alzheimer's, and these patients and their families deserve the fullest that the Byrd institute can deliver. That cannot happen now, in part because Johnnie B. Byrd Jr., the former Florida House speaker, burned too many bridges creating the institute with his raw abuse of power. It is time to move on. The institute has established a reasonably solid record in a short time. It can build on those achievements by having the focus on curing people not diminished by the settling of political scores.
State university system chancellor Mark Rosenberg has the right idea: Put Byrd under the auspices of USF. The institute's expensive new building sits at USF's Tampa campus, and the move would benefit both institutions. Byrd could cut overhead by availing itself of the university's support operations, from purchasing and information technology to human resources, lobbying and legal help. It could save by pooling insurance, spreading administrative costs and sharing offices and equipment. Having the university imprimatur also could expand research, internship and fundraising opportunities.
Byrd opposes the move, as does state Sen. Durell Peaden Jr., the health services appropriations chairman. Byrd said making the institute an arm of the university would water down its global appeal and make it harder for legislators from other parts of the state to justify supporting it with state resources. Peaden said independence was key to ensuring that the institute would serve its legislative intent — research — and not be drowned by the university's larger mission, campus politics or budget battles.
But those concerns pale compared to the challenges Byrd faces and the potential a merger has for both institutions. Having USF as the parent would bring some much-needed accountability to Byrd's governing structure. It would enable Byrd to achieve its mission of coordinating research on Alzheimer's by integrating the institute with departments at the university already doing that very work. The USF umbrella would insulate the institute from political attack and the annual legislative fight over its budget.
Indeed, the mission and identity Byrd and Peaden long for is best guaranteed by joining the university. Gov. Charlie Crist proposed spending $5-million next year on the institute — a far cry from the $15-million anticipated during these start-up years. While the institute, like other tax-funded programs, needs to tighten its belt in these lean economic times, it should not have to face, as a matter of routine, cuts of between half and two-thirds of its budget. Peaden vowed to provide more than $5-million and to guarantee a funding stream from the state. But going year to year in the dark is no way for managers to plan. It is no way to attract talent to move here, no way to impress private-sector partners and no way to impress on the people at Byrd that they are serving a public mission.
USF will need some state money to cover the costs of administering Byrd, so the merger does not hurt existing university operations or reduce what's available for research. But the argument that integrating with a respected university would shrink Byrd's academic stature simply doesn't fly. The opposite is true, and it is doubtful Byrd can survive in the long term in its current form. It is time to talk about the Byrd institute in terms of its research instead of the politics of its survival.