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Context Florida: Ed Moore: Let’s have more college presidents going into government

Tuesday, January 07, 2014

Three articles recently struck me as needing more conversations so I am taking keyboard in hand and opining.

The first was by Scott Maxwell of the Orlando Sentinel. He shared details about himself, giving readers a glimpse into his life and thus his thought processes.

He presented his view of our state capital. “Just look at Tallahassee, which I view as a cesspool of errand boys for special interests — a place where intellectualism and independence are neither encouraged nor rewarded. “ I wrote to him disagreeing with his assessment, but it gets one to thinking.

Then there was the Politico article about politicians who have migrated into roles in higher education, mostly as university presidents. I frequently interact with university presidents and I found this a most intriguing story.

And finally, there was a new story about Florida’s CFO Jeff Atwater, who has announced he is seeking the presidency at Florida Atlantic University.

As Politico points out, the skills of politicians and college presidents are compatible and complimentary. They both are comfortable raising money. Both must be able to speak in public and deal with multiple, and often disagreeing, constituencies.

And in these tumultuous times, both must have the dedication, energy and imagination to solve complex problems.

In my opinion, we have too long ignored the talent at our colleges and universities to help solve the problems facing our state and our country. For too long the pipeline has gone one way — politicians moving into academe, with not enough in the reverse.

Donna Shalala, president of the University of Miami, is a great example of a talent that came from higher education and went into government. She served for eight years as a member of the U.S. Cabinet and then came back to UM, where she has been highly effective as a leader, not just at the college but on national issues as well.

University administrators are used to rolling up their sleeves to tackle difficult problems. They are used to bringing in the brightest minds to dig deep on issues. They are used to dealing with spending and revenue issues. All of these skills are needed to govern effectively in any type of organization.

Some men have moved from academe to the U.S. presidency: Woodrow Wilson and Dwight Eisenhower. But the pipeline should be more of a two-way street.

History gives us many politicians who moved into universities after leaving office, many highly successful such as David Boren and Terry Sanford. Shalala offers an excellent example of being able to add greatly on matters of public interest moving from higher education to government service and then back to a university.

Former Florida State University President T.K. Wetherell is another who moved easily from higher education to politics and back to higher education.

In Florida there’s a growing list of political figures moving into higher education, some with great success: John Delany, Frank Brogan, and Betty Castor, for example.

But it’s time to find more pathways from Florida higher education to Florida government. If you seek to enhance government operations so they operate contrary to what Scott Maxwell contends exists, then we should perhaps in part, look to those who spend their lives where, “intellectualism and independence” are encouraged and rewarded.

University administrators are used to having their boots on the ground, rolling up their sleeves to tackle difficult problems. They are used to bringing in the brightest minds available to dig deep on issues. They are used to dealing with spending and revenue issues. Managing complex issues in higher education is not dissimilar to tackling the myriad of issues that confront elected officials.

The pipeline should be bi-directional. It is time to find more pathways to use the skillsets available in Florida higher education systems to bring the vigor of new ideas and the wealth of knowledge, skills and talent into the realm of politics and policy in a governmental setting.

There was a day when voices from higher education were both sought after and heard. We have a wealth of talent available. Higher education can play a vital role in helping to build a better and a brighter Florida.

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