The Florida Senate has no shame, no self-respect and no guts to stand up to one of its own. Sen. JD Alexander's obsession with transforming a University of South Florida branch campus into an independent university in Lakeland remains unchecked, and it tarnishes the Legislature and higher education. His latest brazen effort to immediately break off USF Polytechnic into a separate university is a ruthless demonstration of brute force without regard for the consequences.
It should be time for Alexander to declare victory. The Board of Governors, which oversees the state university system, responded to Alexander's demands last year by establishing a reasonable timetable with a series of conditions for USF Poly to meet before becoming the state's 12th public university. That wasn't good enough for the petulant Lake Wales Republican. He demanded mountains of records from all universities, and now he is undoubtedly the force behind legislation to allow USF Poly to become independent immediately.
It should be time for the Senate to stand up to its biggest bully and honor its own rules and procedures. Sen. Evelyn Lynn, R-Ormond Beach, is Alexander's puppet, misrepresenting new language in a budget conforming bill that would grant USF Poly immediate independence. Never mind that this substantive change has never been discussed in another committee. Never mind that it is a change of public policy buried in a budget conforming bill. Never mind this is the same lack of respect for rules and common practice that has tied up the effort by Alexander and his supporters to privatize prisons.
It should be time for members of the Board of Governors, university presidents and others who believe in higher education to raise their voices. To grant USF Poly independence now and worry about the benchmarks later turns the Board of Governors' decision on its head. So does transferring responsibility for supervising the transformation from USF to the University of Florida. This is the ultimate in political interference, and USF is the victim. Those other silent university presidents, take note. The next time a powerful self-absorbed senator wants to steal an asset for his own purposes, it could be your program or your professional school.
University officials fear Alexander, because he virtually controls their budgets as chairman of the Senate Budget Committee. But the Senate already wants to cut spending on higher education and recommends no increase in university tuition. There are no real champions for higher education in Tallahassee, and the universities are fending for themselves. There is little to lose by standing on principle and against Alexander's tactics.
USF did not want to give up its Lakeland campus. USF Poly's faculty did not want their campus to become an independent university. USF Poly's students did not want it. But Alexander insisted, and the Board of Governors conceded and approved a road map for independence. Still not satisfied, Alexander is abusing his public office and once again breaking Senate rules and procedures to force immediate independence of the Lakeland campus.
The Florida Senate has a choice. Senators can stand up to JD Alexander and stand for the Senate's rules and procedures. Or they can disband their committees, quit taking votes and throw away their rulebook because the only voice that counts is his.