Old Dixie, the “Devolution” of Florida’s University System, and Faculty Empowerment

February 17, 2010. “Educational reform” measures put forth by Florida’s Council of 100 business leaders and endorsed by GOP power broker Jeb Bush require scrutiny in historical context.

When considering the recent proposals comprising “Closing the Talent Gap,” put forth this month by Florida’s Council of 100,  it is important to keep in mind the dramatic political and structural changes to Florida’s State University System that have occurred over the past ten years. An oft-overlooked or forgotten chapter of Florida higher education’s recent past should be kept at the forefront of our thinking so that we may place the United Faculty of Florida and SUS’s plight in proper perspective. Central to this is  the quasi-privitization of the state’s public universities, termed “devolution,” that took place under Jeb Bush’s governorship and the successful move to destroy the statewide collective bargaining framework existing between the United Faculty of Florida and Florida’s Board of Regents.

Florida is part of the “Old South,” and one of the South’s legacies is a hostility toward independent worker organization that can be traced, without too much imagination, to the antebellum era. In the face of broad unionization throughout the US northeastern, mid-west, and western states during the 1940s and 1950s, American corporations sought to relocate to areas where there was less unionization and the deck was stacked against organizing through anti-labor laws. Like many of their counterparts in the Old Confederacy after passage of the anti-labor Taft-Hartley Act, Florida legislators moved to make it more difficult for workers to form unions through implementation of “right to work,” or “open shop” laws. At institutions where a majority of workers managed to vote union representation into existence, such laws allowed employees to opt out of paying dues even though they were members of the bargaining unit and received the protections and benefits of representation. UFF’s present organizing efforts are rooted in attempts to work within the framework of these very laws designed to undermine worker power and solidarity that a strong union can provide. Our organizing efforts are never-ending.

The UFF membership’s resolve to maintain its capacity as a statewide faculty union was dealt a heavy blow in the early 2000s. The Board of Regents that oversaw the SUS resisted a handful of powerful legislators’ attempts to build law schools at Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University and Florida International University, and a medical school at Florida State University. Infuriated at the BOR’s recalcitrance, Governor Bush and an unusual coalition of Republican and Democratic state legislators moved to abolish the BOR and decentralize the SUS. The result was that each institution was placed under the direct oversight of a separate Board of Trustees.

This decentralization of power to BOTs was in close accord with the national Republican Party’s mission to privatize public institutions and run government “like a business.” The move was also an obvious attempt to weaken Florida’s teacher and faculty unions, which have been strong supporters of the Democratic Party. Bush made sure the eleven new BOTs were loaded with pro-business Republican donors, a practice reconfirmed in  BOG Chancellor and Bush associate Frank Brogan’s October 2009 BOT (re)appointments. These trustees, many of whom do not possess a full understanding of public higher education and would just as soon farm out university instruction to unqualified “private contractors” (adjuncts), are indifferent if not hostile toward public employees’ unions and collective bargaining.

The governance changes were used by the new BOTs as a basis to end bargaining that, since the UFF’s establishment in the mid-1970s, took place between UFF and the BOR. The BOTs argued unanimously that they were no longer bound by the statewide agreements. In response, with the aid of our parent organization, the American Federation of Teachers, UFF mobilized and collected thousands of authorization cards from large majorities of faculty to recertify each UFF chapter as a bargaining agent with their respective BOTs. At eight universities faculty support for recertification of UFF was 65% or more and the BOTs at these institutions voluntarily recognized UFF. At FAU 70% of faculty members who were approached signed cards for recertification. University of West Florida and Florida State University held out for elections where UFF went on to win 90% or more of the ballots at each institution. The University of Florida’s BOT refused to recognize UFF until 2005, when an appellate court decided in the Union’s favor (Fiorito and Gallagher, 2006).

The radical move to decentralize was tempered in 2002 when Florida Governor Bob Graham’s voter amendment mandated a Board of Governors to administer SUS affairs. In contrast to the BOR, however, power exercised by the BOG takes a backseat to the BOTs. (The BOG Chancellorship being occupied by Bush’s former Lieutenant Governor is a curious new development that deserves close scrutiny.) In light of the above, the aforementioned package of “educational reform” proposals put forward by Florida’s Council of 100 and vigorously endorsed by Bush must also be looked at with major reservations, particularly by public educators. For example, the moves to strip K-12 teachers of tenure–or to otherwise make tenure meaningless–is a policy already being tested in the SUS. Further, the document’s buzzwords, such as “accountability” and “efficiency,” often translate to jeopardized academic freedom and an increasingly deteriorating educational experience for students.

This history is willfully forgotten by administrators and trustees at FAU and other state universities, many of whom calculated that UFF would be incapable of reviving itself after the SUS’s decentralization. The sentiment is reflected in remarks such as, “UFF ‘represents some faculty at [ABC] University.'” Keeping in mind this recent history, such an assertion should be recognized for what it is: an attempt to mislead those of us who’ve forgotten or are unaware of our institutional and historical positions in the struggle to preserve the profession’s autonomy. Without question faculty at FAU and throughout the SUS desire independent representation before their administrations and Boards of Trustees, even though the legacy of Old Dixie allows them the opportunity not to pay for such representation.

In solidarity,

James Tracy
UFF-FAU President

Fiorito, J. and V.C. Gallagher (2006) ‘Renewal in the United Faculty of Florida: class war in paradise?’ Labor Studies Journal Vol 31,No 3:39-64.