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Florida colleges' iron chancellor

With lawmakers due to descend on the Capitol, Nancy Stepina was pregnant and worried.

As a top lobbyist for Florida's universities, Stepina had to spend grueling hours pushing the education agenda. By the end of the two-month legislative session, she feared she'd be tired and huge.

Her boss, Chancellor Charles Reed, wasn't worried a bit. One of the most wonderful things in life is bringing a child into the world, Reed told her.

Then his business side clicked in.

"We'll use this to our advantage," she recalls him saying. People would offer her a good seat at crowded meetings, he predicted, putting Stepina close to crucial spending decisions.

He was right. Stepina says she had a bird's-eye view of the 1990 session _ and a baby boy shortly after lawmakers left town.

Charles Reed has a talent for turning most any situation into a plus for higher education.

For nearly 12 years, he has overseen Florida's public university system, steering a state known mostly for college athletics into greater national prominence in academics.

"He essentially is the backbone, the heart and soul of the university system," said Julian Bennett Jr. of Panama City, one of Reed's bosses on Florida's Board of Regents.

Reed, who marks his 12th anniversary in his job Aug. 1, has served longer than any other chancellor of Florida's university system. He's also the longest-serving chancellor of his kind in the country, Reed says.

Yet Reed, 54, is also known for a domineering style that has caused some to wish he wasn't quite so durable.

The past two years have been particularly difficult. As Republicans with a penchant for budget-cutting have gained prominence in the Legislature, Reed has clashed with key players. His forceful manner was called into question more than ever last year when he crossed swords with popular University of Florida President John Lombardi.

Last month, Reed seriously considered leaving Florida.

He was courted for the chancellor's job at the University of Pittsburgh, which could have brought more money, new challenges and a return to his hometown.

His critics thought new blood at the top of Florida's university system might not be so bad.

But a flood of calls, from Gov. Lawton Chiles, lawmakers, regents and university presidents, convinced Reed that he is still badly needed here.

Also convincing, Reed said, was a reminder from his wife of 32 years, Cathy: He could live in Pittsburgh, but he'd still be laid to rest in Tallahassee.

She had already purchased two cemetery plots in town.

Football and cotton picking

Walk into the Capitol on any day of the legislative session and you're likely to see Reed, a bear of a man who patrols the hallways and committee rooms, pulling lawmakers from meetings, cussing up a storm, getting into people's faces.

Reed was fresh out of the doctoral program at George Washington University when he arrived in Tallahassee in 1971 for a job at the Education Department.

He grew up in a Pennsylvania steel town and has said the only reason he went to college was because he was a good football player. At George Washington, he earned an undergraduate degree in health and physical education and later got a doctorate in educational administration.

By the end of the decade, he had moved to the governor's office and in 1984 became Gov. Bob Graham's chief of staff. The following year he was made chancellor and since has served through three governors _ two Democrats and a Republican _ a host of regents and an ever-changing Legislature.

What's his secret of survival?

"His work ethic, his communication skills, his consensus-building skills and, frankly, his personal integrity," said regent Dennis Ross of Tampa. "His motivation is always toward the common good of the system. At the most basic level, people trust Charlie, trust his commitment, trust his word."

Reed says he has a simple philosophy: "Work as hard as you can in the job you have, and everything will work out."

His tenure has been marked by tragedy and trouble.

There were the murders of students in Gainesville. Athletic scandals rocked the University of Florida and Florida State. The University of South Florida has been in an uproar about the possibility of terrorist sympathizers on campus. And there has been ongoing controversy about a former USF researcher who wound up on a prison chain gang because of a patent dispute with the university.

In 1993, Reed was accused of mixing private and public business because of his service on the board of Florida Progress Corp. He was subsequently cleared in a 5-2 vote by the Ethics Commission, but his continuing role on the board still raises eyebrows in some quarters.

Reed says the ethics furor was the only time other than the recent Pitt courtship that he seriously considered leaving Florida.

But his tenure also has been marked by triumph.

Reed has overseen phenomenal growth, with the student population mushrooming to more than 200,000, up nearly 40 percent during the past 10 years. State spending on universities has more than doubled since Reed took office. This year was particularly good for Reed, who managed to secure a nearly 11 percent increase in tax dollars for the universities _ the biggest increase in a decade, he said.

The system has grown in prestige, too, with the location of a national laboratory for magnetic field research in Tallahassee that has attracted world-renowned researchers.

Not so long ago, "People thought of us as playing football, picking cotton and going to the beach," Reed says. "Now, people think of us as having a Nobel Prize winner and great scientists."

He has become a roving ambassador for higher education, crisscrossing the country making speeches and teaching classes. In September, he'll go to Peru as one of 25 Americans selected to attend the 50th anniversary of the Fulbright scholarship program.

But Reed is the first to point out what he sees wrong with higher education in Florida.

The system never recovered from three years of budget cuts in the early 1990s, and Florida faces a burgeoning college population in the next century. Financial aid for the neediest students hasn't kept up with demand. Faculty salaries have fallen below earnings at comparable universities in other states. Struggles continue over faculty tenure and the proper balance between teaching and research.

Florida's university system has to tackle those issues before it can truly become great, said Brian Nelson, an associate professor of political science who is president of the United Faculty of Florida.

"I don't think you get there just by having a Nobel Prize winner," he said. "You do it by building an excellent system, and that means you have to do a lot of things _ more than just great names, bigger buildings, more labs."

Reed wants to increase financial aid for needy students, admit more students to universities and continue raising tuition. Florida ranks 47th in the nation in tuition, even after a 7 percent increase approved by the Legislature this year.

But Reed will face a Legislature in which lawmakers are more conservative than ever about spending the public's money.

Pulling political strings

From his days as Graham's chief of staff, Reed has been an expert at playing the legislative game.

"Charlie is one of those few people who understands the academics and politics of a situation," said former state House Speaker T.

K. Wetherell, now president of Tallahassee Community College. "A lot of the times, people in academics understand the academics of an issue, but they don't understand the politics of how to make it happen."

The politics of education has changed completely since Reed first became chancellor.

"Before, it was if you support public education, you pour money into it and it will get better," Wetherell said. "Now they say, "I'll support it, but I want to see options.' "

But Reed's legislative battles haven't been confined to budget-slashing Republicans. He has had a lukewarm relationship with Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Davie, chairwoman of the House Higher Education Committee, who wants bold reforms of the higher education system.

His relationship is even worse with Senate Higher Education chairman George Kirkpatrick, D-Gainesville, an ally of UF president Lombardi.

Reed has also sparred at meetings with state Rep. Fred Dudley, R-Cape Coral, chairman of a Senate subcommittee on education spending.

"I think the Board of Regents has relied too much not just on Charlie but on their entire staff," Dudley said. "No matter how good Charlie is, we don't need the Board of Regents if all they're going to do is rubber stamp what Charlie says."

Regents such as incoming chairwoman Elizabeth Lindsay of Sarasota say Dudley has it wrong.

"We have a great many regents who are . . . very conscientious about keeping up with what is going on and in trying to do the best job that they can," Lindsay said.

But it would be hard to describe Board of Regents meetings as forums of fiery debate.

Reed acknowledges that his staff briefs each regent, and if problems can't be fixed before the meeting, the item is taken off the agenda.

The leadership issue sparked the clash with Lombardi, who irked the regents when he went straight to lawmakers with his plans.

That's not how things work under the regime of Reed, who has insisted that presidents and regents work together and present a unified front to lawmakers.

The flap escalated to the point that Lombardi flew to Johns Hopkins University to be interviewed for another job. But after Chiles and other state officials got involved, Lombardi decided to stay.

The wounds still aren't healed.

Asked about how he gets along now with Lombardi, Reed said, "Okay."

Lombardi's response: "I don't think there's any problem there. We don't throw things and shout at each other."

What if Reed were to leave his job as chancellor?

"None of us is indispensable _ not me, not Charlie," Lombardi said. "These institutions and systems are bigger and more important than any individuals who are current players."

But others viewed the potential loss of Reed as devastating.

Chiles told him, "We need you in Florida, now more than ever," Reed said.

He was asked by the regents' chairman if he wanted a raise, but he declined. His current salary is just more than $200,000, and he is provided a car by a regents foundation funded by private donations.

In the end, Reed said, he couldn't leave Florida after investing 25 years of his life here.

Pittsburgh was a wake-up call, said USF President Betty Castor, who has known Reed since her days as a lawmaker and then Florida's education commissioner.

"He's been doing this a long time, and there's a tendency to take people for granted," she said. "There really is no stronger force right now for higher education."