State higher education job requires political savvy, soft touch

The pay’s good, and the title of the job sounds nice enough — chancellor of the state university system.

But Florida’s next leader in higher education will inherit a job that requires a soft touch, keen political savvy and the dexterity to manage many bosses.

The 17-member Board of Governors hires and fires the chancellor and sets the agenda. The governor and Legislature make the rules and control the purse strings. Then, there are 12 universities, each with different sets of leaders and ambitions.

Chancellor Frank Brogan announced last week that he’s leaving the post on Sept. 30 to take a similar position in Pennsylvania.

Who fills his shoes could help cement the job as an important cog in the management of Florida’s higher education system, or continue a power shift from Tallahassee toward individual universities.

“It’s not like it used to be because the board delegated most of the power, almost all of the power, to the individual campuses,” said Charles Reed, who served as chancellor from 1985 to 1998 when the state had a more powerful Board of Regents. “And there needs to be some compromise, some happy medium, between giving away all of the authority and having it all centralized.”

Reed says now more than ever the chancellor must keep the state’s interests in mind.

“What you have out there are 10 or 12 cats all running around trying to figure out what’s best for each of them, not what’s best for the state of Florida,” he said. “The chancellor’s job is to herd those cats all in one way.”

When Brogan took the job in 2009, the Board of Governors was in a protracted power struggle with the Legislature. He helped iron out a compromise and focused on improving coordination with the schools.

In an interview with the Times/Herald, he said the next chancellor will need to pick up where he left off. For example, the state needs to implement a new initiative that ties university funding to performance. But he also leaves behind a track record worth studying.

Brogan left his job as president of Florida Atlantic University to become chancellor, but his resume also includes a series of elected offices, including lieutenant governor and education commissioner.

Some say he brought a politician’s approach to the job, avoiding confrontation and conflict to a fault. Brogan said politics is part of any job, but that is not why he chose to stay above the fray.

“You can always catch more flies with honey than you can with vinegar; that’s not a political style, that’s a life experience and a philosophical bent that I take,” he said.

But others wish Brogan were bolder during times of controversy, such as when Gov. Rick Scott requested that universities reject a 1.7 percent tuition increase tied to inflation.

Brogan told the university presidents what the governor wanted and why they should comply. But when they balked, he left it up to the universities to thwart Scott’s campaign.

Privately, he feuded with former Senate budget chief JD Alexander, R-Lake Wales, the notoriously prickly lawmaker. In 2011, Alexander slipped language into the budget that would have reduced Brogan’s $357,000 salary and eliminated a third of his 57-person staff. The cuts did not make it into the final budget.

“After 35 years, the best part of my career has been building relationships,” Brogan said. “Some have been easier to build than others, but at the end of the day they have all been memorable.”

The Board of Governors will select an interim chancellor by its next meeting Sept. 12. Members will launch a national search to find a permanent replacement but may not make a hire until after the November 2014 election.

The reason? Quality candidates may wait to see who is elected governor, knowing that the governor will have a say in the ultimate appointment.

However, people are already thinking about what kind of person they want for the job. Sen. John Legg, the Trinity Republican who chairs the Education Committee, said the chancellor must be a problem-solver, communicator and consensus-builder.

He hopes the person selected will focus on better defining the role of each university under one statewide agenda.

“That would take leadership at the chancellor’s position and some laying down of a little bit of pride by a couple of the universities,” he said.

University of North Florida President John Delaney said he once disagreed with the decision to create individual trustee boards at each school, and then later he disagreed with the establishment of the Board of Governors. Now he believes they can all work together, with the chancellor’s help.

“The Board of Governors has increasingly strengthened its grip over universities, and I view that as a positive,” said Delaney, who served a year as interim chancellor. “I’ve long said that the chancellor and the Board of Governors need to be a stop sign to stop universities from doing something that isn’t in the state’s interest.”