As the Legislature concludes the yearlong drive to abolish the state Board of Regents, the seeds of the new university system are being planted in the state Capitol basement.
There, in Gov. Jeb Bushs appointments office -- four floors below the legislative chambers -- thick binders already are filling with the names of prominent and politically connected people who may soon be asked to run Floridas public universities. Some, such as Bill Cosby and Jimmy Buffett, may not even know they were nominated. Others, itching for the chance to have influence over one of the states 10 public universities, nominated themselves.
Bush is looking for more than 100 people who can serve on those boards.
He also is looking for seven people for the new Florida Board of Education, which will set policy for universities and community colleges and, by 2003, for public schools. Each state university would have at least 10 or 11 trustees. And there is a chance the Legislature and Bush may agree to an 11th university, elevating Sarasotas New College, a small, quasi-independent branch of the University of South Florida, to full independence.
Step right up and apply -- but hurry. Bush has vowed to fill all the seats by July 1. On that day, the boards of trustees are to replace the Board of Regents, which has governed Floridas universities since 1965.
Bush and Lt. Gov. Frank Brogan put out the help-wanted notices just over a week ago -- before the Legislature even considered the bill -- and already nearly 200 nominations have filled the binders, coming as lengthy applications, simple letters, e-mail printouts and even phone messages.
But whom will Bush pick?
Diversity will be key
At a meeting at the University of Central Florida on April 20, Bush promised Floridas 10 university presidents he will keep an open mind, seeking diversity of backgrounds, cultures, professions and geography, with little or no consideration of politics.
Its a promise his supporters say he must keep, and even some of his critics say he would be foolish to break. The success of Bushs bold and controversial overhaul of the university system -- and the future of the universities themselves -- will rest largely in the trustees hands.
"I doubt hes willing to destroy what hes worked so hard to build," said one of the harshest critics of Bushs planned new university system, Dr. Joseph Layon, a University of Florida radiology professor who is chairman of the UF Faculty Senate.
Many of the nominations are people who clearly have the desire and connections. Others may simply be someones wishful thinking.
Cosby has been suggested for Florida A&M Universitys board. Buffett was nominated for Florida Atlantic Universitys board. Former U.S. Sen. Connie Mack, Orlando City Commissioner Daisy Lynum, Walt Disney World Vice President Dianna Morgan and more than half of the current regents are among those on file by Friday.
2 nominees for UCF board
So far, only two names have been floated for the University of Central Floridas board, though one has been floated often. Orlando public relations man Roger W. Pynn nominated himself, and also was nominated by nine others , including Florida House Speaker Tom Feeney, R-Oviedo, Rep. Allen Trovillion, R-Winter Park, and Seminole Community College President Ann McGee. The other UCF nominee is Richard E. Morrison, vice president of Florida Hospital, who nominated himself.
Pynn, a longtime board member of the UCF Foundation, the universitys nonprofit fund-raising agency, argues that the universities ought to be served by trustees who already have committed themselves to the schools.
"As my wife said, Youve spent half of your adult life trying to support UCF. Its a passion for me. Its my alma mater. Its where I met my wife. Its where I got my professional act together," Pynn said. "Ive always tried to pay back UCF."
Winter Park businessman Philip Handy, a close Bush adviser who has been nominated for FAMUs board, was one of the chief architects of the new system. Handy, a graduate of Princeton and Harvard universities, is a true believer that the new system can work, with careful appointments.
"There are world-class universities wed like to emulate. Weve looked at those," Handy said. "Michigan, Harvard, Princeton, Berkeley. Im hopeful our boards will emulate those kinds of boards."
Democrats are nervous
In spite of Handys and Bushs assurances, university communities and many Democrats are nervous, because Bush will have the opportunity to turn the universities into politically controlled institutions.
"My biggest concern is that this ends up being a political patronage system for this governor, or for any other, for that matter," said State Sen. Ron Klein, D-Delray Beach. Still, he added: "Just because someone is a Republican or a Bush supporter doesnt mean theyre not qualified."Former Florida House Speaker T.K. Wetherell, who worked with Handy on a state task force that planned the new system, downplayed the trustees importance, saying "The staff is probably going to be more key to the success than who the governor picks."
Nonetheless, Wetherell has nominated 24 people for various boards. Among his recommendations: Morgan, outgoing Regent Steven Uhlfelder, Orlando businesswoman Julia Johnson and fellow former House Speaker and task-force member John Thrasher.
"What youre looking for is a mix of people that will make a strong board," Wetherell said.
Uhlfelder, one of the most vocal members of the Board of Regents, said the trustees need to be vocal, too. "They need to be cheerleaders, but they need to be diligent protectors of the taxpayers and the students," he said.
Bush has asked the university presidents for their recommendations and promised to give them serious consideration. But some presidents have pointed out how awkward it would be for them to make recommendations. After all, whomever Bush picks will become their bosses.
"Its a no-win situation," said FAU President Anthony Catanese.
So far, FAMU President Frederick Humphries and UF President Charles Young have offered names. But Humphries retires this summer, and Young has said hes not planning to stay more than another couple of years.
Catanese said he was delighted by Bushs remarks last Friday about wanting to cast a national and international net for trustees, and to consider people he might not have been previously thinking about, such as scientists and scholars.
"It got me thinking bigger than I had been," Catanese said. "Im not just looking at Republican Party contribution lists anymore."
Still, Catanese is a realist.
"You want world-class people. But you want world-class people whose phone calls [to the governor] will be returned."
Scott Powers can be reached at email@example.com or 407-420-5441. Karla Schuster can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 850-224-6214.