The University of Central Florida report from the state House of Representatives is as bad as you might have expected.
University officials are alternately portrayed as uninformed, ineffective, fearful, careless or, in the case of former university President John Hitt, borderline reckless in using accounting gymnastics to pay for new buildings.
The draft report submitted by the House Public Integrity & Ethics Committee took aim at the Board of Trustees, the group appointed to oversee the university.
One section of the report bore the alarming headline, “BOT Members were Ill-Advised and Untrained.”
“Trustees,” the report said, “were unaware of their budgetary responsibility. They relied on CFO (Bill) Merck to advise them, leaving them unable to exercise oversight of multiple decisions...”
The report noted that the university’s lawyers failed to offer legal advice about what turned out to be improper spending.
None of this is a good look for the state’s largest university, an economic piston that helps power Central Florida’s economy and quality of life.
The good news is the state report makes multiple recommendations that, if followed, should help Florida’s universities avoid future accounting fiascoes, while strengthening boards of trustees and the Board of Governors, which oversees universities.
You know what the report does not recommend? Cutting the budgets of Florida’s universities. Last week, House Speaker Jose Oliva hinted that might be coming, saying a “course correction” is needed for universities.
House Republicans have been jonesing for higher ed budget cuts, so Oliva’s comments were about as unexpected as a noisy battle in the third act of a superhero movie.
At the start of last year’s lawmaking session, the Senate wanted to increase university funding by $383 million while the House wanted to cut it by $217 million. The year before that, the House tried to get a moratorium on new buildings at colleges and universities.
Now, with UCF’s misspending as a pretext, Oliva is going on offense.
He seems to think that universities have lost the ability to make good spending decisions because they’re drowning in money.
That’s so weird. The reason UCF took money from the wrong fund to construct a new classroom building was too little money, not too much, as Oliva supposes.
Faced with insufficient construction money, officials pilfered the school’s operating pot of money, which is supposed to pay for salaries, research, maintenance, student services and other expenses.
That was a major breach of trust, as the House report outlines, but one motivated by what appears to be financial desperation.
It takes some pretzel logic to conclude the root cause of UCF’s misspending was too much cash on hand, and that other universities are similarly flush.
From the beginning we’ve had no quarrel with the House making university officials squirm. Accounting rules exist for a reason, and universities are obliged to abide by them. Universities are state institutions that spend state money. The House is right to exercise its oversight function and try to safeguard the public’s money by fixing problems.
That might mean some fundamental restructuring in how beans are counted at state universities, as the House report outlines.
Cutting budgets at growing universities is not fixing the problem. It feels more like exacting revenge, or more likely seizing an opportunity to meet a political goal — in this case, starving public universities of money.
An editorial from the Orlando Sentinel.