Charlie Reed, former chancellor of Florida's university system, dies at 75

Charles Reed left Florida in 1998 to head the California system.
Charles Reed left Florida in 1998 to head the California system.
Published Dec. 8, 2016

TALLAHASSEE — Charles B. Reed, a longtime university system chancellor in Florida who once famously proposed the Legislature adopt a new motto — "We're cheap and we're proud of it" — died Tuesday at age 75.

Mr. Reed spent 13 years as the head of Florida's university system in the 1980s and '90s, the longest tenure in the state's history and one marked by his blunt, personal style.

He was a longtime critic of the Bright Futures scholarship program, saying the popular merit-based aid program helped too many Florida families who could already afford to send their children to college.

He argued that Florida lacked a strong, centralized authority for higher education, saying the state should make decisions based on statewide benefits rather than the desires of influential politicians and alumni.

He continued pushing that point well into his retirement.

"Florida has a national reputation these days that it has political intrusion on steroids," Mr. Reed said in 2012 about the Legislature's move to create Florida Polytechnic University in Lakeland.

He elaborated on that theme in a 2013 speech.

"Those states that have the best systems are governed by a board that has a plan, and they look out for what is best for the entire state," Mr. Reed said. "I'll get slammed for saying that. But I believe it. I have lived it. And I have watched the other states and what they have been able to accomplish."

In 1998, Mr. Reed moved to California to lead the California State University system, the largest in the country. The system had a peak budget of $5 billion when Reed stepped down in 2012 and returned to Tallahassee.

"Charlie will always be remembered as a formative figure in our university's history and as a tenacious, passionate champion of public higher education," said Timothy P. White, chancellor of the California State University system.

A Pennsylvania native, Mr. Reed played football and later went on to earn a doctorate in education from George Washington University. After working at the Florida Department of Education, he moved to the executive branch in 1984 to become then-Gov. Bob Graham's chief of staff.

Mr. Reed's backslapping style, in contrast to Graham's more cerebral approach, was credited with improving the governor's relationship with the Legislature.

In 1985, Graham named Mr. Reed university system chancellor. He quickly embarked on an ambitious plan to improve the system's academic quality, financial stability and national reputation.

With Graham's help, and an unprecedented increase in state funding, he was remarkably successful, although the Legislature's reductions in the universities' share of state funding in the '90s eroded some of the gains.

That angered Mr. Reed, and clearly had much to do with his departure for California. In his final years as chancellor, he clashed repeatedly with conservative lawmakers who had come to dominate the Legislature.

He is survived by his wife, Catherine Reed; two children; and five grandchildren.

Information from the News Service of Florida was used in this report.