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Friday, May 25, 2018
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Treating higher education as political toy

Two recent events highlight the political mess Tallahassee has made of Florida’s higher education system.

In Polk County last weekend, Florida Polytechnic celebrated its grand opening, with Gov. Rick Scott and other notables on hand for the festivities.

More somber observers would find little to celebrate about launching a 12th public university while the state still struggles to adequately support 11.

In Tallahassee, Florida State University has gone nearly six months without a president and, as the Tribune’s James Rosica reports, students and alumni are expressing their fury about the situation on a website developed to take comments on the search.

Both situations are the direct result of the state showing more concern for political influence than academic excellence.

The state had no business establishing Florida Polytechnic as a separate university, which it did two years ago even as it slashed the state university system budget by $300 million.

Polytechnic was being developed as a branch of the University of South Florida. But former Polk Sen. JD Alexander was upset that USF did not bestow enough programs on his pet project and orchestrated its abrupt independence. This resulted in the creation of a new university without faculty or accreditation. It also ignored the wishes of students attending the branch campus.

Now 500 students, attracted by the desperate offer of free tuition, will begin classes next week at the unaccredited university in Polytechnic’s showy structure at Interstate-4 and the Polk Parkway.

Florida Polytechnic may eventually go on to become a prestigious academic institution — though the other state universities, including nearby USF, hardly lack for accomplished STEM programs. But the timing and means of its creation were grossly irresponsible.

Similarly, FSU finds itself without a leader. After former President Eric Barron was named president at Penn State, it appeared power brokers would ensure state Sen. John Thrasher got the job.

The influential political operative, who is chairing Gov. Rick Scott’s re-election campaign, is a longtime champion of his alma mater.

As Rosica reports, the focus on Thrasher discouraged other potential candidates from applying. The search committee even suspended its work to focus on Thrasher.

The panel eventually relented on the special treatment, and other candidates have applied, including a state representative and the chief justice of the Florida Supreme Court. Still, the FSU post is not attracting the interest its status justifies.

Things likely would have been far different had it not been for the widespread belief that political influence, not merit, would determine the selection.

The episode hurts FSU, the state university system, and even Thrasher, an effective leader who has more to commend him for the job than his political contacts.

But as long Florida leaders continue to treat the university system as a political playground, it will never fulfill its enormous potential.

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