1. Opinion

A textbook lesson in bad leadership

Published Feb. 15, 2012

Abraham Lincoln once observed, "Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man's character, give him power."

I suspect I know how our 16th president would have reacted to the actions of state Sen. JD Alexander and his obsessive desire to create a 12th university in Lakeland and punish the University of South Florida for its sensible, professional leadership that flies in the face of his political demands.

When the State Board of Governors did not immediately acquiesce to Alexander's pressure to create the state's 12th independent university, he sought legislative approval to do it anyway. He then sought to punish USF by cutting its budget by 58 percent, a figure dramatically greater than proposed cuts to any other university.

Every student at USF should thank Alexander for providing a valuable life lesson on how not to lead. We often learn much more in life from negative experiences than positive ones. What they have before them is a tremendous example of ham-fisted power and arrogance that best illustrates what has gone wrong with our political system.

Real leadership is collaborative, respectful and positive. People aren't punished for disagreeing; listening and compromise are strengths. True leaders know how to use power carefully, and the more power they have, the more careful they are in its use.

If Alexander were an anomaly we might overlook his excess and pettiness. But incredibly, his plan to slash the budget of USF enjoys support in the Senate. The "go along to get along" mentality is epidemic in our Legislature and speaks to the dearth of leadership. Leaders don't allow themselves to get cowed and will stand up to the bully in the room, regardless of title.

There are other public policy implications in this debate. It stands to reason that USF should not bear any special budget burden. If there are to be cuts to the university system, they need to be fair and equitable. Surely wiser heads will prevail on this matter. If voices are heard and the cuts to USF are changed to be on par with that of other universities — let's not declare victory. Part of the game is to get people riled up over an issue that is so far out of the mainstream that most people fail to focus on broader policy implications. Other issues of public policy should be argued with equal vehemence to the proposed USF cuts.

Why do we continue to make severe reductions to our state university system when we should be investing in higher education? At the same time these decreases are being proposed, the Legislature passed exemptions to the corporate tax rate in the state, further diminishing state revenues by $108 million. As mayor, never once did I hear a corporate executive complain that the state's corporate tax rate was too high and a barrier to growth. But on hundreds of occasions I heard the complaint that companies had trouble recruiting and retaining a highly educated workforce. Corporate executives greatly value an educated and well trained workforce. They want a robust university system.

Why, but to appease the interests of one politician, is the state agreeing to make USF Polytechnic a separate university while at the same time reducing the budgets of the university system as a whole? If we can't afford to properly fund our 11 universities; why would we add a 12th?

Why do Floridians put up with such a sorry state of affairs? Don't we deserve better? A state senator shouldn't punish a university and all of the students it serves because he didn't get his way on an issue. How are we going to grow our economy and develop our workforce if we keep reducing our commitment to higher education?

It's time for the vast middle ground — all of those who believe in sensible, honest, straightforward government — to get active. Time for voices of reason and moderation to be heard. Time to say enough of extreme ideology and abuse of power.

Those who misuse power inevitably overreach. This is such a case. The larger issue at stake is the low quality of leadership that leaves the vast majority of Floridians unrepresented. It is time for the flaming moderates to speak out. I urge everyone who cares about the University of South Florida, our higher education system and good government to make your voice heard.

Our state will only get better when the quality of our leadership gets better.

Pam Iorio, the former mayor of Tampa, is the author of "Straightforward: Ways to Live and Lead."