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Trustee conflicts at Florida's public universities are starting to bleed over into public view

 Students stand and chat with each other between classes at Florida A&M University
Patrick Sternad
WFSU Public Media
Students stand and chat with each other between classes at Florida A&M University

WFSU has found more than two-thirds of Florida’s public universities have sitting trustees whose terms are expired. And there are no new appointments in sight — which is starting to create tensions between the people charged with overseeing the universities and those running them day-to-day.

Florida’s public universities are governed by 13-member boards of trustees that are supposed to help the schools develop an overall mission and set strategic goals.

In Tallahassee, there are two public universities: Florida A&M, and Florida State. On FSU’s board, all members are current. At FAMU, two of its members, including Board Chairman Kelvin Lawson, are serving beyond their terms.

Lawson has found himself at the center of several issues in the past few years. The school’s former Vice President of Advancement George Cotton filed a whistleblower lawsuit in 2019 alleging Lawson and two other trustees tried to pressure him into hiring their friends at FAMU.

“It was very difficult for the president to run the university and I would argue it remains difficult for the president to run the university," Cotton said in an interview with WFSU.

His case against FAMU is ongoing. During his time at the school, Cotton says FAMU’s board was involved in far more than its state-mandated tasks of approving programs and helping with key hires. "[The trustees] would probe as deep into the hiring of clerical staff all the way up to the hiring of senior-level management,” he stated.

Lawson was connected to another mishap: the transfer of $3 million from the school's auxiliary funds to its athletics department—a move that’s barred by the state’s public university oversight board. Cotton claims Lawson pressured him to move the funds. When he refused, he says Lawson threatened his job. In 2019, Lawson appeared before the state university systems board of governors and disclosed the transfer of money, calling it “unacceptable," and two women, the school’s comptroller and budget director, were fired as a result. The chief financial officer, another woman, also resigned.

“I can’t talk about what happens at other institutions, because I don’t know—though I am told there are similar concerns," Cotton said, "but at FAMU, not only are trustees involved in day-to-day operations, but they insert themselves wrongfully in attempts to steer contracts, to get people hired and get people fired. And when you don’t do it, they threaten you.”

Now, several people employed by FAMU and familiar with the situation say Lawson is meddling in the university's decision on whether to retain athletics director Kortne Gosha. During a recent board meeting, Lawson called for a vote of confidence for Gosha, something usually not done unless a person is in danger of being fired.

Lawson did not return several requests for a comment on this story. His term formally ended last January, yet he’s still serving as board chairman. He is among more than a dozen people at seven of Florida’s public universities that are still serving on their boards, despite their terms being over.

There are also problems with a second member of the school’s oversight board: Belvin Perry. He’s also chairman of the board for FAMU’s rival, Bethune-Cookman University. It’s a position the schools’ stakeholders say is unfair.

FAMU is not the only school grappling with the consequences of trustees who’ve overstayed their welcome. State law does not address whether trustees have to step down when their terms are up. Ben Wilcox with the government accountability group Common Cause Florida says it’s a complicated issue.

“Apparently, BOT members are allowed to serve after their terms are expired and I don’t see whether there’s any kind of end date for their terms," Wilcox said, noting that state law is silent on the question of whether trustees should step down at the end of their terms.

He also doesn’t understand why the governor and Board of Governors don’t just reappoint the trustees whose terms are up.

“I think it’s an optics problem—whether they’re legitimately board members if their terms have expired.”

The governor’s office did not respond to a request for comment regarding the status of the expired trustees.

Recently, state agriculture commissioner Nikki Fried accused Gov. Ron DeSantis of pay-for-play—asking for donations in return for appointments. There’s no direct evidence to support that claim, but there are many university employees across the system—professors, administrators, and staff—who are growing increasingly concerned about trustees overstepping their bounds.

“It’s a very short-term, bottom-line kind of thing. And the more short-term, bottom line you become, the more top-down you become, the more an army-like structure comes into play," said Meera Sitharam, the vice president of the faculty union at the University of Florida.

UF is facing several controversies related to its Board Chairman, Mori Hosseini. Hosseini is a supporter of DeSantis and helped fast-track the hire of State Surgeon General Joseph Ladapo into a tenured faculty position.

Hosseini has denied accusations he and other board members influenced UF’s decision to prevent several professors from serving as expert witnesses in a voting rights lawsuit against the State.

Sitharam says the state's narrow focus on creating jobs and climbing in national rankings, coupled with its emphasis on having people with business backgrounds on university boards, leaves those boards open to potential conflicts of interest and political whims.

“To what extent, and how are these people screened? The university is a non-profit and… there [are] lots of potential kick-backs they could be getting by establishing university contracts, in and around the university," she said.

The way university board members are appointed is fairly straightforward. There is a student and a faculty representative. The governor gets six appointments, and the board of governors names five members. But the Board of Governors is also mostly appointed by the governor, allowing whoever is in that position to control the leaders of all 12 public universities. Sitharam believes the state should consider getting more people with more diverse backgrounds on the boards and there should be term limits in place.

“There’s got to be term limits," she said.

"Even if you can’t directly pinpoint a conflict of interest…it could be that people, once they reach a certain age...they’re drunk with their own power. I can just make a text to the president of the University of Florida…and I don’t have to consult with my other board members.”

Sitharam sees the issue as more about gaining power and influence than money. It’s a situation that can easily lead to abuse of university resources, says FAMU whistleblower George Cotton. He says very few employees speak up because they need their jobs.

Copyright 2022 WFSU. To see more, visit WFSU.

Lynn Hatter is a Florida A&M University graduate with a bachelor’s degree in journalism. Lynn has served as reporter/producer for WFSU since 2007 with education and health care issues as her key coverage areas. She is an award-winning member of the Capital Press Corps and has participated in the NPR Kaiser Health News Reporting Partnership and NPR Education Initiative. When she’s not working, Lynn spends her time watching sci-fi and action movies, writing her own books, going on long walks through the woods, traveling and exploring antique stores. Follow Lynn Hatter on Twitter: @HatterLynn.