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FSU's skeptics unappeased

On the eve of a key vote, Florida State University administrators tried to reassure skittish faculty members Thursday that a hotly debated chiropractic school will never become reality without their review.

Many in the audience of 150 remained skeptical.

Why did FSU advertise in the Chronicle of Higher Education for a chiropractic school dean two months ago, asked retired English professor John Simmons, if "we're just beginning to debate the merits of the program?"

Others at Thursday's on-campus forum said they took offense at administration arguments that FSU was seeking to develop a reform-minded chiropractic school, one that would better ground the profession in hard science and root out controversial practices.

"I resent the idea that FSU should be burdened with that. Why us?" said Charles Ouimet, a professor of neuroscience in the College of Medicine.

Many of those attending the forum clearly wanted to make their feelings known before the matter is taken up at a Board of Trustees meeting today.

The outcome is anyone's guess.

In recent weeks, the chiropractic school has faced increasing criticism, with hundreds of professors reportedly signing petitions against it and a handful in the College of Medicine threatening to resign.

Among the complaints: a lack of faculty input; a perception of academic meddling by powerful state lawmakers; and a fear that any association with chiropractic will make FSU _ which aims to join the prestigious Academy of American Universities _ a national laughingstock.

FSU provost Larry Abele answered questions patiently, repeating several times that the university was committed to faculty input _ assuming the state Board of Governors signs off on the program later this month.

His caveat opens yet another can of worms.

Though some FSU trustees say they expect to take an up-or-down vote on the chiropractic school, the resolution on today's agenda says only that the matter will be referred to the Board of Governors, which sets policy for all of Florida's public universities.

Critics call that a blatant dodge.

In a letter sent Thursday to trustees chairman John Thrasher, Board of Governors chairwoman Carolyn Roberts also took exception.

"Normal procedures would include an approval process at Florida State University, with final university action on the proposal by its Board of Trustees," Roberts wrote. "Any other interpretation of normal procedures, such as the one now being proposed by Florida State University, is an inappropriate precedent for the way universities will do business with the Board of Governors."

Roberts said she expects the trustees to approve the program today.

"If not," she wrote, "the Board of Governors will consider the application incomplete and will reject the request for review."

In recent weeks, a tangle of plots and subplots has emerged in the fight over the chiropractic school: faculty vs. administration; Board of Governors vs. Legislature; doctor against chiropractor.

The Legislature, led by then-Senate President Jim King, an FSU graduate, approved $9-million a year for the school last spring. But what appeared to be a sure thing has become a lightning rod, generating a lawsuit, a slew of negative newspaper editorials and proposed legislation that would ban lobbyists from serving on boards that run Florida universities.

It also has turned into a test case for the Board of Governors, which critics accuse of ceding too much of its university-regulating power to the Legislature and Gov. Jeb Bush.

New developments are cropping up daily.

At dueling press conferences this week, the Florida Chiropractic Association accused doctors of fueling "medical bigotry" and leading an orchestrated smear campaign while a leading anti-chiropractic activist, Oklahoma anesthesiologist William Kinsinger, called the fundamental tenets of chiropractic "total nonsense."

The FSU proposal remains alive only because "chiropractors have learned to master the political game," Kinsinger said.

Thursday's faculty forum followed a meeting earlier in the week by the FSU Faculty Senate's Graduate Policy Committee, which voted 22-0 to ask both the Board of Trustees and Board of Governors to postpone their decisions until a faculty review.

The $60-million school would include 100 new faculty members and enroll 500 students in a five-year, master's degree program.

FSU administrators have promised to steer clear of some of chiropractic's more controversial tenets, including claims from some practitioners that spinal manipulation can promote fertility in women, reverse Parkinson's disease and cure children of bed wetting.

Supporters also say chiropractic is growing in credibility and acceptance, with 15-million patients each year and coverage by insurance companies.

FSU physics professor Anthony Frawley told his peers he has been treated by three chiropractors and was "very pleased with the results."

"This is an opportunity for FSU," he said to a smattering of applause. "We'll have the premier program in the country."

Critics say they don't see a need.

Florida has more chiropractors per capita than the national average, according to a recent staff report to the Board of Governors.

The state needs 108 chiropractors per year to keep up with demand, the report said, but a new, private chiropractic college in Volusia County is expected to produce as many as 188 graduates per year by 2007.

Meanwhile, no public, four-year institution in the country has a chiropractic school.

FSU professors are not clamoring to be the first.

Said biology professor Ross Ellington: "What is the faculty constituency here that is driving this?"

Times reporter Steve Bousquet contributed to this report. Ron Matus can be reached at (727) 893-8873 or matussptimes.com.

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