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Board overboard

The Board of Regents is dead, even if some members don't know it yet. And Florida's universities aren't feeling so well themselves.

Wednesday marked the first episode of the Board of Regents' new hit series, Dead Men Talking.

Meeting for the first time since vindictive Tallahassee lawmakers legislated them out of existence, the regents dithered about what to do next. Those regents still in the denial phase of the grieving process wanted to launch a vigorous lobbying campaign to save their jobs. It's a little late for that; their jobs are gone, even though the official execution date may not come until 2003. The Legislature has spoken, Gov. Jeb Bush will soon sign the regents' death sentence into law and a transition commission stacked with reliable friends of the governor and Republican legislative leaders will then fill in the details of the transfer of power over higher education in Florida.

Strangely enough, regents chairman Tom Petway can't manage to mask his glee over the imminent demise of his board. Petway has been revealed as a Trojan horse chosen by Bush to oversee the dismantling of the regents from within. At least Petway is correct when he argues that the regents shouldn't waste time trying to save themselves. Instead, the best the regents, university system Chancellor Adam Herbert and other higher education officials can hope for is to exert some marginal influence over the work of the transition commission that will build the framework of a new Superboard of Education.

In the meantime, Herbert and the regents still have what's left of a university system to run, and they are only beginning to see the evidence of the damage legislative meddling and their own lame-duck status will cause.

Take the presidency of the University of Florida. Won't somebody please take it? The search for a new president fizzled away to nothingness just after the Legislature voted to eliminate the jobs of the people doing the hiring. Some of the finalists reportedly were reluctant to take the job without knowing who their boss would be a year from now. Other candidates were turned off by the blatant politicization of higher education in Florida, as revealed during this year's legislative session. Others wondered about the wisdom of a new structure that will lump Florida's universities in the same pot with kindergartens and middle schools.

Officials are now reduced to hoping that interim UF President Charles Young, the respected former chancellor at UCLA, will stay on the job two more years while they crank up a new search for a permanent leader. An alarming number of other top posts at UF also are unfilled. Some insist that other factors, including Florida's open-government laws, explain the sudden lack of interest in the UF presidency, but open-government laws didn't prevent former UF President John Lombardi and other top candidates from seeking the job in the past. Closer to home, top professors and administrators at the University of South Florida are mass-mailing their resumes in reaction to legislators' efforts to tear USF to pieces.

Still, don't tell Pollyanna Petway there's a problem. "I think people outside of Florida are looking at these changes as exciting and exhilarating," he gushed Wednesday. That must be why the top job at the state's top university has gotten so popular.

If nothing else, Herbert and the exhilarated regents probably are gaining a better understanding of the old Chinese proverb: May you never live in exciting times.