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Fla. Gov. gets lesson in higher education politics

GARY FINEOUT, Associated Press
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Florida Gov. Rick Scott (Photo credit: Getty Images)

Florida Gov. Rick Scott (Photo credit: Getty Images)

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TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) — Florida Gov. Rick Scott in less than a week has gotten a crash course in the state’s complicated higher education politics.

Scott had already angered some in the state’s academia when earlier this year he published university faculty salaries, questioned the need for training more anthropologists and pushed universities to turn over data on their performance.

But his call to suspend Florida A&M University President James Ammons while authorities investigate a marching band member’s hazing death triggered a backlash among the school’s students and alumni. Hundreds of students marched on the governor’s mansion last week to confront Scott.

The FAMU Board of Trustees on Monday rendered its own verdict by rejecting Scott’s suspension recommendation and saying they would resist any “outside influence” when it comes to running the 124-year-old institution. Those who stuck by the decision included the four board members that Scott himself appointed this year.

“I think it’s clear he had no real sense how vast, how wide and how deep the support for the institution is,” said Andrew Gillum, a Tallahassee city commissioner and a former student body president at FAMU who was among those calling on the board to ignore the governor.

The reaction from those associated with FAMU is hardly surprising given the historically black college’s past.

For example, FAMU had a law school until the ’60s when state legislators yanked its funding. The law school was not reinstated until 2000. It was part of a political deal that included getting a law school for Florida International University in Miami and a medical school for Florida State University across town from FAMU in Tallahassee.

A push by a former state university chancellor in the late ’90s to group the state’s universities by size and research dollars drew a fierce wave of opposition from FAMU supporters at the time. The tiered system would have limited enrollment and program offerings depending on the type of institution. FAMU’s enrollment is about 13,000.

Last week, some of the students who showed up outside the governor’s mansion expressed fears that the move against Ammons was part of a prelude to a possible merger with nearby and much larger Florida State.

“I think it’s very difficult for the governor to really understand FAMU and the way people feel about it because he hasn’t been there very long,” said former State Sen. Al Lawson, an alumnus of FAMU who pushed to restore the law school. “There’s a lot of historic issues and every time something happens FAMU feels like it is under the microscope.”

Scott has lived in Florida for less than a decade and had never run for office before. He insisted he wasn’t singling out FAMU.

He said he stood behind his suspension call, pointing to the criminal investigation into the homicide of drum major Robert Champion, the arrest of three FAMU students accused of breaking a fellow band member’s leg in another hazing and a newly launched investigation into the finances of the famed Marching 100 band.

The governor, who said he will abide by the board’s decision, defended his actions on Monday.

“I ran on accountability and I believe in accountability,” Scott said. “I am going to do the things I believe are in the best interest of 19 million Floridians. Everybody doesn’t agree when you do that but I feel comfortable with the decision I made.”

Florida’s higher education system — split between 11 state universities and 28 colleges — has been buffeted by political battles and tug-of-wars for years. The system used to have just one board that oversaw all universities. But then-Gov. Jeb Bush and then-House Speaker John Thrasher drew up on a napkin a plan to dissolve the state panel and replace it with local boards at each university.

That prompted former Gov. and U.S. Sen. Bob Graham to push a constitutional amendment that created a new hybrid system that includes local boards as well as a new state Board of Governors. The governor appoints members to both panels. So far this year Scott has made 37 appointments to university boards, but he will not get a chance to make any more to the FAMU panel until 2013.

Charles Reed, the chancellor of the California State University system who once headed up Florida’s, said the state’s higher education system has a history of political intrusion that differs greatly from his current state.

Reed last month returned to the state and gave a speech to a prominent body of Florida business leaders where he sharply criticized a push by some including State Sen. J.D. Alexander to create a stand-alone polytechnic university in Lakeland. Reed said on Monday that debates over the state’s higher education system usually heat up quickly.

“In Florida they use live ammo,” Reed joked. “They try to kill people.”

 

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press.

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