MAXWELL:  Lombardi’s winning record

1/25/1998 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


During his nearly eight years as president of the University of Florida, John Lombardi has incurred the wrath of the Board of Regents, the 14-member panel that governs the state’s public universities and decides the fate of the presidents.

Several members, especially Chairman Steve Uhlfelder, have long wanted to fire Lombardi. They believe that Lombardi, acerbic and arrogant, is not a team player, sets a bad example and is disruptive to the system.

Regents thought that they had the perfect excuse to fire Lombardi after word surfaced a few weeks ago that he had called the incoming chancellor an “Oreo” _ a term often used disparagingly for an African-American who adopts white values. They believed that the public, particularly blacks, would see the racial epithet as a firing offense, one in a long list of Lombardi missteps. They also thought that Lombardi’s slur would help them conceal their real motive: ridding themselves of a maverick they cannot control.

But this effort to oust Lombardi, like others, is sputtering. Why? Because, despite what the regents may see as an objectionable managerial style, Lombardi is a brilliant thinker and planner, making him one of the most effective and popular presidents in Florida history. In other words, he is good at the job he was hired to do _ lead UF.

Enmity between Lombardi and his bosses began in earnest three years ago when he sidestepped the board and negotiated directly with legislators on behalf of UF. He also angered other university presidents. A year later, he called the regents’ policy that restricts university expansions “stupid” and “typical of this idiotic system.”

Even so, the Board of Regents should never act out of pique or be driven by personal vendettas. And, for sure, the fate of a university president should be determined by an objective measure of competence and productivity. Lombardi, however, is not being judged on his ability to manage UF but on the volatile chemistry between him and his bosses.

As they ponder Lombardi’s future with the university system, the regents should bear in mind some of the accomplishments that make UF’s ninth president effective and immensely popular among current students, alumni, staffers and lawmakers.

First, he has a clear vision of the academy. Seven years ago, when many Americans, especially Florida’s increasing numbers of fiscal conservatives, were beginning to believe that a university education was diminishing in value, Lombardi co-wrote an accountability plan that requires UF to report on annual production, measuring variables such as the quality of teaching and the number of students graduating.

This plan, called “The Florida Quality Evaluation Project,” has been lauded by experts nationwide. “Our resource balance can provide both the public and the politicians with the best-known weapon against cynicism and suspicion: facts and numbers,” Lombardi wrote.

Today, because of this system, parents contemplating enrolling their child at UF can come to the campus and track, say, the quality of teaching and research.

Lombardi’s emphasis on both teaching and research has helped the state land three national centers since 1990: Los Alamos, the $56-million UF Brain Institute built on campus; the UF Engineering Research Center for Particle Science Technology, soon to start construction on campus; and the National Magnetic Laboratory in Tallahassee in cooperation with Florida State University.

Because Lombardi increased focus on grants and federal research funding, UF operates with a budget of $1.8-billion, even though only about 28 percent of its funding comes from the state. When he arrived in 1990, research funding was $190-million. Last fiscal year, such funding hit a record high, nearly $256-million, more than that of any other state university in Florida.

With two and a half years to go in UF’s five-year capital campaign, dubbed “It’s Performance That Counts,” UF has raised about $300-million toward its $500-million goal. Most people credit Lombardi for the campaign’s success.

Lombardi also has initiated programs that benefit the other state universities. The Teaching Improvement Program, a state-sponsored initiative for Florida’s public universities, was established after he drafted a proposal devising a way to reward teaching excellence.

Many of his efforts are student-oriented, intended to give students the best value for their investment. For example, this summer, under Lombardi’s guidance, UF will become the state’s first university and the nation’s largest public university to require all students to graduate with basic computer literacy.

Lombardi has drawn praise, too, for promoting graduate student enrollment. His efforts will add about 700 new students in 1998-1999, a 10 percent jump in a year’s time.

Furthermore, Lombardi created the Integrated Student Information System, called one of the best in the country, that lets students register for their courses, adjust their schedules and access their academic and financial records. And, thanks to his help in securing $1-million from lawmakers for counselors, students can now avoid courses that delay graduation.

No assessment of Lombardi’s tenure would be complete without mentioning part of his record on race, ethnic and gender relations.

On his second day on campus, for instance, he told the Quality of Life Task Force that the basketball team needed a black coach, saying, “I would not consider it satisfactory if we wound up with an all-white coaching staff in basketball.”

And Lombardi appointed the first woman full vice president, the first woman provost and the first black full dean. He also called for the campus to reflect the state’s ethnic diversity at all levels and instructed faculty to determine if information about ethnicity and society could be viably incorporated into their courses.

At this writing, Lombardi is still president of UF, the new chancellor is having second thoughts about his appointment, and the regents are backing down. They underestimated the reach of Lombardi’s popularity and miscalculated the power of his performance-based administration.

Ironically, Lombardi may wind up being the biggest winner in this latest attempt to run him off. Because they did not quickly fire Lombardi, the regents may have uncorked a restructuring effort that would shift a large amount of discretionary power from them to the individual campuses _ a move that Lombardi champions.

In a letter to Uhlfelder, State Sen. John Grant, who also is Senate Education chairman, expressed his concern and that of many other lawmakers that the current system of central control is outdated:

“There needs to be less control from the Board of Regents and more autonomy and flexibility for every university. Such tightfisted control from Tallahassee can both limit academic and administrative creativity in some cases and mask mediocrity in others.”