UCF isn't the only school breaking funding rules for new buildings. Why are Florida lawmakers so focused on punishing UCF? 

Bad blood

Page 3 of 3

click to enlarge PHOTO BY JOEY ROULETTE
  • Photo by Joey Roulette

The scandal plaguing UCF had been going on for months, with Florida lawmakers berating school officials throughout the process, but things started feeling like a personal vendetta when one legislator threatened to shut down the entire university for a decade.

In February, Rep. Randy Fine, R-Palm Bay, actually suggested that the largest school in Florida, with 68,000 enrolled students, should be shut down for five to 10 years. The Brevard County Republican made the comment at a hearing of the Florida House Higher Education Appropriations Subcommittee.

"I believe that we are stewards of the taxpayer money," Fine, the committee's chairman, told UCF's interim vice president for finance and administration, Misty Shepherd. "We are obligated not to fund organizations that refuse to steward that money in an appropriate way. If this a private business that I owned, I would shut it down."

Fine then asked Shepherd: "I'm working on a five- and 10-year potential shutdown of the university, and so how much money ... do you believe you would need next year if next year was the first year of a five- or 10-year shutdown because the university refuses to put in place appropriate corporate governance?"

Hours after that meeting, and with House Speaker José Oliva downplaying Fine's threat, Fine backpedaled, saying his comments were hyperbolic because he wanted to raise awareness of the serious nature of the investigation.

The damage was done, though, and some Orlando lawmakers began to question why their colleagues seemed so vindictive toward UCF.

Eskamani has a dual-degree bachelor's and master's degree from UCF, and is currently in the public administration school's Ph.D. program. Eskamani, who has also been an adjunct professor at the university, says she remembers taking women's studies classes at the old Trevor Colbourn Hall.

"This building was dangerous," Eskamani says. "Their only option was to tear down the building and rebuild."

Systems of government reporting allowed the misuse of funds to happen without oversight, and checks and balance are needed, Eskamani says. But she argues things got out of hand with threats to the university, which is an economic hub for Central Florida.

"We've seen lawmakers villainize UCF and try to use UCF as an example of the Legislature's strength on accountability," she says. "There are plenty of examples of hypocrisy where we're not holding ourselves accountable in the same vitriolic nature that continues to be exhibited toward UCF."

Eskamani wonders whether the University of Florida or Florida State University, two of Florida's pre-eminent universities with dozens of alumni in the Legislature, would be treated the same way as UCF.

"We now know that other universities may have been doing the same thing, so I ask, 'Are you going to shut down UF for five to 10 years?'" Eskamani says. "I don't know if UF would have experienced the same treatment because of UF's political power and number of grads serving in the Legislature. ... These are public universities that are part of our system of impact in Florida, and we're treating them like evil players in some sick game when they're trying to make the best out of limited resources."

Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith, another Democrat from Orlando and a UCF grad, says lawmakers need to consider "what factors have led to this systematic misuse of funds at multiple universities, not just UCF."

"I'm worried that we're not looking at the systematic problem, which is the underfunding of public school buildings at our state universities," he says. "We need to address that as part of the response. Not just punitive measures that punish students and faculty that have nothing to do with these problems."

Smith and Eskamani have been the most outspoken UCF graduates in the Legislature in defense of their alma mater. Republican UCF graduates, though, have remained mostly silent. Orlando Weekly reached out state Reps. Amber Mariano, Rene Plasencia and Chris Latvala, all UCF alumni, but received no response.

The only vocal Republican UCF graduate has been Leek, who chairs the powerful House Public Integrity and Ethics Committee that's currently investigating the school. Leek says he's seen no signs of bias toward UCF. Although the University of South Florida also admitted misappropriating $6.4 million in leftover operating funds, UCF's $85 million misdirection of funds is significantly bigger, Leek argues.

"I love UCF," he says. "I hate what they did because it was absolutely wrong, but they're not being unfairly targeted in any way. ... Any wound UCF has suffered is self-inflicted. Any trouble they've gotten themselves into is because of trouble they've caused. Dale Whittaker is a good man. What he did was step down for the sake of the university, so the university could put a new face going forward. I happen to think that was the right decision."

Scott Launier, an associate professor at UCF and the president of the United Faculty of Florida at UCF, says the scandal is a "violation of public trust and taxpayer funding" and that a culture of misspending further impedes legislative trust.

"Once we get to the bottom of all of this, are we pursuing accountability strongly enough? I mean, this is criminal stuff. This is a really big deal," Launier says. "But I think that there are other people that are behind this that have not been named and touched by it yet. Because it seems that whatever agenda the university has had for the faculty union has not changed or wavered at all."

In the wake of reports last week that at least a quarter of Florida's universities have some issue with the improper use of state dollars, Fine struck a more measured tone, telling the News Service of Florida that he wanted to look at more training for university officials who oversee school finances.

Fine, a Harvard University graduate, says "nothing could be further from the truth" about lawmakers favoring other universities.

"I understand where that concern comes from, but I didn't go to any of these schools, so I don't have any affinity," he says. "If the University of Florida and Florida State had stolen $80 million, I'd be just as mad at them. ... I don't know that there should be any punishment for UCF. There should be appropriate actions for people who caused the misappropriation, but it's not students' fault."

Eskamani, though, says UCF students and staff would be directly affected if the Legislature refuses to provide for needed remodeling projects or allow the university to create a planned $40 million scholarship fund.

"I know it's not over," she says. "Whether it's removal of individuals from positions of leadership or lack of funding during this legislative cycle, it's definitely not over."


Never miss a beat

Sign Up Now

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.


© 2019 Orlando Weekly

Website powered by Foundation