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Politics U.

By volunteering Sens. Graham and Mack as potential University of Florida presidents, Gov. Jeb Bush added to the political meddling in higher education.

The presidency of a major research university isn't some ordinary patronage plum to be doled out to the nearest politician looking for a job. Or at least it shouldn't be. But Gov. Jeb Bush, having quietly encouraged the brazen politicization of Florida's public university system during the Legislature's recently completed session, is sending even more troubling signals with his meddling in the search for a new president at the University of Florida.

UF, the state's flagship research institution, had to suspend its search for a new president when the six finalists _ all nationally respected university administrators _ dropped out. Not surprisingly, several candidates expressed misgivings about lawmakers' efforts to abolish the Board of Regents and intervene more directly in higher education policy.

But Bush doesn't see the problem. If no qualified university administrators want the UF job, he'd simply lower the criteria. Get rid of that pesky Ph.D. requirement. Drop that insistence on previous experience in leading a multibillion-dollar research university.

"The governor thinks the Board of Regents needs to expand its criteria to include a broader range of candidates," Bush spokesman Justin Sayfie said.

By "broader range," Bush apparently means "politician." U.S. Sen. Bob Graham as UF president? Sure. U.S. Sen. Connie Mack? Why not? "The governor thinks either man would do a fine job," Sayfie said.

With this intrusion, the governor has sent precisely the wrong signal at precisely the wrong time. The credibility of our university system already has been damaged by the various gambits _ including the crude hit on the Board of Regents, the approval of an unnecessary medical school and two unnecessary law schools, and an attempt to eviscerate the University of South Florida _ in which lawmakers indulged this spring. After all the damaging national publicity generated by that meddling, the governor and other state leaders should be taking steps to reassert the academic independence of Florida's universities.

Instead, Bush only made matters worse by injecting himself into the UF search.

To be sure, many successful university presidents have come from non-traditional backgrounds. For example, University of South Florida President Betty Castor, who oversaw great progress at USF before her recent departure, came to the job as an elected official without a Ph.D. However, Castor has devoted most of her adult life to education. She was an educator first, a politician second. And she won the position through the normal search process, not as a result of gubernatorial intervention.

Mack? Aside from his commendable involvement in cancer research, Florida's junior U.S. senator has never put higher education at the top of his agenda. He says he has no interest in the UF presidency.

Graham? Perhaps the greatest legacy of his two terms as governor was the strengthening of the university system. However, much of that progress has been frittered away in the 13 years since Graham moved from Tallahassee to Washington. In any case, Gov. Graham wisely delegated oversight of the university system to then-Chancellor Charles Reed and other academic leaders. Graham and the Legislature concentrated on providing adequate funding for the system.

Graham also says he has no interest in the UF presidency, and he has become one of the most prominent critics of lawmakers' radical restructuring of the university system. Bush would have done well to gain Mack's and Graham's approval before throwing their names into the hat for the UF post. Bush also would do well to talk with Graham about the proper role for a governor to play in improving higher education. By encouraging lawmakers' assaults on the academic integrity of our university system, Bush risks leaving office with a much different legacy from Graham's.

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