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By JonMarcus
eyond the freshly planted, carefully manicured
landscaping fringing the new roads, there’s not much to
betray what is planned for the area of Central Florida
called Lake Nona. Only a few bored-looking cattle graze past
the lonely new strip malls that are the unmistakable early
warning signs of looming development in this state.
What is about to happen here is symbolic both of the
remarkable growth of higher education in Florida and the
dramatic way the public universities are governed after
two revolutionary changes in just five years. Those changes
served to decentralize a system that was once tightly centrally
controlled (just as has been happening in other states), and
then to rein it in again. Through it all, politics in this politically
obsessed state became even more of a factor in what happens
at each campus.
In January, VIPs will come from all over Florida to Lake
Nona to mark the groundbreaking for a biosciences building
that will be the first component of a newmedical school and
the 13th satellite campus for the University of Central Florida,
a school that did not exist until 1968 and is now (along with
two other Florida universities) one of the ten largest in the
United States, with more than 45,000 students. “The biggest
university you never heard of,” people in Orlando like to joke.
Students call it “UCF—Under Construction Forever.”
UCF made its argument for a newmedical school with
a survey it commissioned that shows the demand for new
physicians in Florida will grow from 2,800 a year now to 4,200
a year by 2021. Despite
its aging demographic
in need of healthcare,
Florida ranks 37th
per capita among the
states in medical school
enrollment. And Central
Florida, whose elderly
population will nearly
double by 2025, has no
medical school at all.
But numbers alone
were not the crux of
the university’s strategy.
UCF also teamed up
with public Florida
International University in southwest Miami, which wanted a
medical school, too, citing, among other things, the prestige it
would attract along with a projected tripling of the $80 million
a year in sponsored research FIU conducts today.
The two proposals, which together will cost an estimated
$500 million over ten years, were made into a single package,
Fall 2006
The “Seamless System”
Florida’s flurry of dramatic changes in the governance of public education
channeling the impressive
political clout of two
of the most politically
dominant sections of
the state. “That was
just arithmetic,” UCF
President John Hitt said
unabashedly. “If you look
at the delegations and
the politics, you’ve got
Southeast Florida and
Central Florida. It’s very
hard to stop that in the
The university also
brought in JohnThrasher,
a former Republican
speaker of the House,
who had earlier managed
to get a medical school
for his alma mater,
Florida State University,
over the objections of
the Board of Regents.
Thrasher was paid $7,500
a month to lobby for
UCF. “If somebody’s
working for you, they’re
not working against you,” Hitt explained. In all, the UCF
Foundation hired eight lobbyists to push the medical school.
Though some members questioned whether a new
medical school was needed, let alone two (critics argued that
expanding residency programs was a better way to increase
the number of Florida doctors), the new university oversight
committee, now called the Board of Governors, approved
them last April, by a vote of 16 to one. Within weeks, so did
the legislature.
Politics like these are not a new part of Florida higher
education, of course. It would be “incredibly naive” to believe
so, said John Cavanaugh, president of the University of West
Florida and head of the resurgent State University Presidents
Association. “You’re dealing with a political system. By
definition it’s political.”
It was politics that brought things to this condition in the
first place.
For 35 years, Florida’s university systemwas largely
controlled by the Board of Regents, which served in part
to protect the schools from interference by legislators who
wanted to put pet programs on the campuses in their
districts. The regents also kept a tight lid on the universities,
representing their interests collectively but minimizing (while
John Hitt presides over 45,000-student Central Florida
University, one of the nation’s largest.
Backers of the new
K–20 “seamless
system” insisted it
would bring an end
to fighting among
the various levels
of education over
finite resources.
Todd Anderson, Black Star, for CrossTalk