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The school bullies // HIGHER EDUCATION

The Legislature is making real progress toward strengthening Florida's public universities, giving them more money and greater flexibility. But if the Senate has its way, those gains will be blunted by meddling and micromanagement _ the very things the Legislature had vowed to avoid.

The Senate Higher Education Committee has approved a bill that would give each university some discretion in deciding how much tuition to charge, but only if they all submit to inflexible rules designed to get students in and out in four years. The universities can be financially pummeled if they don't go along.

Granted, there ought to be a limit to how long taxpayers should subsidize a student's pursuit of higher education. But a university ought to have the flexibility to set those rules based on the special needs of its student population. After all, each campus is a little different.

This one-size-fits-all approach is the product of University of Florida President John Lombardi's goal to get more students into classrooms by cycling them out faster. That may work fine in Gainesville, but it doesn't necessarily work at the University of South Florida, where thousands of students work full-time and take longer to get their degrees.

This approach runs counter to the growing philosophy inherent in much of the rest of the higher education bill, whichseeks to give each university president more power over his or her domain.

USF President Betty Castor, for example, points out that she cannot sign contracts, hire architects or even name a building after someone without the approval of the Board of Regents. That's an intolerable situation that a bill sponsored by Rep. Jim Davis, D-Tampa, seeks to fix.

Davis wants to give the universities even wider latitude in raising tuition, allowing them to seek up to 30 percent more over five years rather than a one-time maximum increase of 10 percent as proposed by the House leadership. While his approach is better, either one is preferable to what the Senate is doing.

Castor accurately describes the Senate bill as "page after page of statutory language that would tell us exactly how to operate" in "the most prescriptive language." That has always been the Legislature's way, but that approach was supposed to change this year. Old habits die hard.

The Senate bill is being driven by Lombardi's legislative buddy, George Kirkpatrick, chairman of the Senate Higher Education Committee, who happens to hail from Gainesville. It's odd that Lombardi would help craft legislation that ties the hands of his fellow university presidents, since he had a fit last year over the Board of Regents trying to tell him what to do. He apparently doesn't mind Tallahassee meddling as long as it goes his way.

Still, Lombardi has a strong ally in Kirkpatrick, who wields considerable influence over higher education matters. But his Senate colleagues, especially those from the Tampa Bay area, need to help him understand that what's best for Gainesville isn't necessarily best for the rest of Florida.

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