Goodbye Knights? Lawmaker floats ‘shutdown’ of University of Central Florida

-Randy_Fine_delegation
Randy Fine has been vocal about spending issues at the school.

State Rep. Randy Fine is suggesting the lack of oversight is so stunning at the University of Central Florida that the 68,000-student school — one of the largest in the nation — deserves to be shuttered.

“If this was a private business I owned, I’d shut it down,” Fine said. In fact, he said he’s “working on a five- or ten-year shutdown of the university,” he added, because of its dearth of “corporate governance.”

Fine spoke Wednesday at a hearing of the House Higher Education Appropriations Subcommittee, which he chairs. He began a promised deep dive into university capital spending.

But House Speaker Jose Oliva said in a statement that he does not support closing UCF.

“The misuse of taxpayer dollars by a few members of the UCF administration does not diminish the achievements of the faculty and students of the university, nor does it reflect negatively on the positive impact UCF has to both Central Florida and the entire state,” said Oliva, a Miami Lakes Republican.

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Democratic state Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith, who has UCF’s main campus in his House District 49, went further. He called Fine’s statement “reckless.”

“Stepped outta committee for a few mins only to discover Chair @VoteRandyFine opined about a 5-10 yr @UCF shutdown. I hope this is a joke,” Smith tweeted. “The 69K students, 13K employees, 112K addl jobs + $8B economic impact depend on UCF. Reckless rhetoric w/many lives on the line isn’t funny.”

A misuse of state funds surfaced in September and focused on $38 million in operating money that was used to construct UCF’s Trevor Colbourn Hall.

Under state policy, the funds were supposed to be used for activities such as instruction, research, libraries, student services or maintenance.

A subsequent investigation by an Atlanta law firm led to a report that outlined a total of $84.7 million in state operating funds that either were used or slated to be used by UCF for construction projects, in direct violation of state policy.

Robert Garvy, chairman of UCF’s Board of Trustees, released a statement reading in part, “UCF is an admired and appreciated institution that has transformed more than 280,000 lives and an entire region of the state over the past 50 years.

“To shut it down would cause irreparable harm to Florida’s future and to the tens of thousands of organizations, businesses, and institutions that depend on its talent, ideas, and innovation. “

But Fine, a Palm Bay Republican has been vocal about issues at the university, namely on the roughly $85 million in “misdirected spending,” including the capital costs on Trevor Colbourn Hall.

UCF used $38 million of operating money to build a new classroom building, spent another $14 million on other construction projects, and programmed another $33 million to do likewise, though it was never spent.

And Fine’s not stopping there.

“We’re going to bring before this committee every (item) on the PECO (Public Education Capital Outlay) list today … and make sure they are still things we want and ought to be doing,” he vowed.

There are $733.1 million in outstanding projects, some dating back to 2006.

And a cash shortfall of $743 million in the next three years, according to projections rolled out by Eliza Hawkins, deputy staff director of the House Appropriations Committee.

In response to Fine, Hawkins noted that the Legislature has the right to remove a project from the PECO list.

“That would be your call. A simple process of reverting funds,” Hawkins said.

Misty Shepherd, UCF’s Interim VP for Finance & Administration, took the brunt of criticism from Fine.

“It is my opinion … that the conduct [regarding] that building was inexcusable,” Fine said, doubting that there is “an adequate sense of the severity of the situation.”

Fine is not the only prominent Republican with qualms, though he’s the only one to float such a draconian solution. Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran said earlier in February that “changes need to be made” at UCF.

“If people are going to misspend, and cheat, in essence, to the tune of 50-plus million dollars, they have to be held accountable. Changes have to be made,” Corcoran said.

“And I think the Speaker, the Governor, the Senate President, all of them have been very, very clear. They are investigating. There will be transparency. And there will be accountability.”

UCF has already made some changes.

Its president of 26 years, John Hitt, retired in June before allegations of misspending came to light.

His right-hand-man for financial matters, Senior Vice President Bill Merck, retired in August after the allegations surfaced and investigations began.

Four others beneath them were fired.

Bonuses were canceled for Merck and new President Dale Whittaker, who had been provost under Hitt. Marcos Marchena gave up his chairmanship on the Board of Trustees.

Further changes may await the school this Legislative Session, which begins March 5.

The UCF scandal and Fine’s comments are bringing a vast array of responses.

Democratic state Rep. Anna Eskamani, who has several degrees from UCF and teaches there, and represents an Orange County district that is just a few miles away, tweeted: “Accountability is one thing— unnecessary and extreme punishment is something else. @UCF contributes a LOT to our state economy and fosters much needed talent for industries across FL. Let’s be wise in how we handle this.”

Garvy’s statement in full read:

“UCF is an admired and appreciated institution that has transformed more than 280,000 lives and an entire region of the state over the past 50 years. To shut it down would cause irreparable harm to Florida’s future and to the tens of thousands of organizations, businesses, and institutions that depend on its talent, ideas, and innovation.

“UCF and its leadership are working tirelessly to address and correct the problems of the past. We’re committed to working with the Board of Governors and the Legislature to ensure we are vigorous stewards of the public trust and the tax dollars entrusted to us.

“UCF has been recognized nationally and internationally for the quality of its graduates, research, and collaborations by an impressive array of both public and private organizations.

“We’re committed to getting this right and ensuring UCF’s bright future continues.”

Fine’s comments followed other moves by the House to crack down on UCF officials in the wake of the financial scandal. Last week, the House Public Integrity & Ethics Committee voted to summon 14 university officials, including UCF President Dale Whittaker, to testify before the committee.

“A proper investigation is in the best interest of the university and important to its integrity,” Oliva said in his statement.

___

Jacksonville correspondent A.G. Gancarski and Orlando correspondent Scott Powers contributed to this post, with additional material from The News Service of Florida, republished with permission.

Staff Reports


28 comments

  • James

    February 13, 2019 at 1:29 pm

    Only the weakest politicians would pand about aproblem the Florida legislation created by under funding schools

  • David

    February 13, 2019 at 2:32 pm

    Now if they signed a 6 yr $36.6 million contract with a football coach that would be OK. But the temerity of building a structure to used for academics at a University of all places is simply inexcusable.

    • Matt

      February 13, 2019 at 3:03 pm

      Exactly

  • Scott Simpson

    February 13, 2019 at 2:55 pm

    Is it really bad that operating money that was not needed for operations was spent to repair dangerous issues with facilities. It’s not like the money was spent on personal expenses or something like that. Get a grip.

  • Matt

    February 13, 2019 at 3:05 pm

    What a joke. It is amazing a person of this magnitude could threaten the lives of so many people because he doesn’t like getting one pulled over on him for a change. The reality is if a person like this could shutdown a place that builds hundreds of thousands of lives every decade then holy shit!!!!

  • Matt

    February 13, 2019 at 3:16 pm

    Hey Randy noticed Harvard had seven Billion donated to it in 2016 what does that roughly two walls for the border. What the hell do they use all that money on???

  • Dr.G

    February 13, 2019 at 3:22 pm

    As a UCF Alumnus, I am torn. On one hand I am upset at the mere idea of shuttering any school as just ridiculous, on the other, I have personally seen how fast and unbridled UCF’s growth over the last 20 years has been…and wondered how could it ever be a sustainable model to both the school and surrounding communities. I remembered when 30,000 seemed insane, and here we are with the possibility of 100,000 in sight in a few more years. UCF’s unquestioned and unbelievable rise should have everyone feeling uneasy.

    • David

      February 14, 2019 at 9:49 am

      Also as an Alumnus, I don’t think there’s any need to be torn about this. UCF is in some wrong here and needs to be accountable for their actions and this absolutely warrants a thorough investigation. But Fine’s suggestion of shutting down the university is completely irrational and downright harmful to the Central FL community and who knows how many other communities with connections to UCF.

      • Dr.G

        February 14, 2019 at 12:35 pm

        I do not think anyone on this page (I hope) actually agrees with the mere idea of closing the University, or dropping all government funding, nor believes it will ever truly happen. Of course I would never want it closed.

        My difficulty is the realization that UCF’s governance has been too unconstrained, if not wanton, and likely does call for some kind of investigation and possible oversight. I was likely too blind as a student to see it, but now I recognize the dangers of the push for implausible growth.

  • Alan

    February 13, 2019 at 3:56 pm

    My son is a sophmore there on bright futures and fl prepaid
    Never have gotten a proper breakdown of costs
    Bills show up on the absurd web site hidden somewhere deep under some rediculous heading. .i think its student services?
    How about “Balance” or “billing”.anyway
    Unannounced last second amounts suddenly blocking registration. No warning.
    Yes ive called the school. .usual BS large government type bureaucracy. No one knows anything
    Not one bill emailed or mailed to explain any
    Charges not covered by either BF or prepaid.
    I have spoken to other parents saying same exact thing.
    Other parents tell me it not like that at gainsville. …so although shuting down ucf
    Is absurd. ..it brings to me some attention at least to what is being paid to who and where and for what reason.

    • S P

      February 13, 2019 at 4:20 pm

      Wait a minute,… a politician is complaining about money being used inappropriately!? Now that’s not ironic in any way. SMH

    • Gary C Lopez

      February 13, 2019 at 4:42 pm

      Alan, your experience concerns me. My son maybe choosing to attend UCF in the fall. His other option is Florida State. I was leaning towards UCF for the financial savings as opposed to FSU. Like your child, my son is on BF scholarship and few others. I would hate to be constantly held at gunpoint to making an unexplained payment for something.

      As for this issue, I do find it strange that this issue makes the spotlight during the enrollment season for the fall. As to Mr.Fine, I did a little research on him and did not find any evidence that he has ties to any motivation for his comments about shutting it down. In fact, he seems like a sharp guy that says things the children in the room don’t like to hear.

      In any case, this whole affair just may hand my child to FSU!

      • Craig

        February 13, 2019 at 5:18 pm

        I was accepted to fsu in 1999 and later accepted to ucf that year. I decided to choose ucf over fsu and it was the best decision I’ve ever made. Don’t let a financial issue away your decision. You know how many scandals there have been at every university, especially fsu? Ucf is an institution that is only growing into one of the best schools in the nation. Because they used finances set for a different reason to better the school and its students I don’t see this as a huge scandal. This politician is just blowing smoke to pretend like he has any authority and make a political name for himself so he can further his career. He has no clue what he’s talking about and this will blow over by next year.

        • Carl Johnston

          February 13, 2019 at 10:01 pm

          Completely agree. Our daughter just graduated Magna Cum Laude from UCF and was also Florida Pre-paid and Bright Futures. We never had any of the previously mentioned billing or any other finance problems. Great school.

          • Gary

            February 14, 2019 at 3:45 pm

            Thanks, Carl for your input!

      • Dr.G

        February 13, 2019 at 10:21 pm

        Gary Lopez, if UCF is anything like it was when I was a student 10 years ago, I can completely vouch for what Alan has said about the billing at UCF being a complete mess. They never sent any formal billing in snail mail for new semester tuition dues or student housing, to either me or my parents. Everything financial was done through the website/email, which was incredibly difficult to find out specific details about billing dates, itemized list, etc, and the website did not track your student loan debts (at least when I was there). The process was essentially make an online payment, then await the next billing due. The only way to get solid information was to go in person to student services. I distinctly remember one semester I was unexpectedly hit with an abnormally high tuition payment out of the blue, that was never an issue before, and told I was told I had two weeks to pay it or my classes would be dropped. Not exactly easy for a student to come up with thousands in a couple weeks, especially as they work simultaneously to pay their way through school. The worst part was UCF finances will notify your professors of any delinquent payments, and they asked me about it. How embarrassing…

        Like I said, this was 10 years ago, so maybe things have changed, but if it hasn’t, there is lots of room for improvement.

      • Magda E Medina

        February 14, 2019 at 8:47 am

        My daughter is graduating this year as a Civil Engineer. She too has Bright Futures and many other Grant’s and scholarships. We have not had any issues with billing at this institution.
        You can log in and view all billing statements online anytime.
        I believe UCF is a great University and do not regret my daughter attending this school.

        • Gary

          February 14, 2019 at 3:49 pm

          Dr.G & Magda, thank you both for responding to my concerns. I only have one child and one shot to get this right for my sons future.

          Again, Thank you both.

  • Steve Grabarczyk

    February 13, 2019 at 4:39 pm

    First off Randy Fine is a moron. Second, Hey Carlos, you should be the last one to complain about stupid politicians costing jobs, you were all for it when it suited your crooked agenda. Folks this is a good example why all these politicians, R or D are full of shit. We the people pay them, and they do NOTHING for the people they represent.

  • Jamey Carothers

    February 13, 2019 at 4:44 pm

    Sounds a bit like Trump University, but this place is still in business.

    • Tim

      February 13, 2019 at 8:29 pm

      It’s nothing like Trump University, but thanks for trying.

  • Craig

    February 13, 2019 at 5:21 pm

    This guy is such a tool. He is pandering and making it look like he’s so conservative that he actually cares while all he’s doing is trying to make a name for himself. Sit down, tool, you close ucf you lose money and in turn your job. Please shut your mouth before more word vomit spews out of it… Thanks, bye

  • Bp

    February 13, 2019 at 10:05 pm

    Republican tactics 101. You don’t like something, just shut it down.

  • RB

    February 14, 2019 at 12:52 am

    He must be a USF grad.

    • Gary

      February 14, 2019 at 3:52 pm

      I did a background check on him thinking the same thing. He has no ties to any higher learning institution other than Harvard where he graduated.

  • SS

    February 14, 2019 at 9:00 am

    These buildings weren’t built overnight or under darkness. The people charged with oversight of the funds (state legislators) should have seen this coming a long time ago. They are as much to blame as anyone. Let’s shut them down.

  • eserviceoldnavy.com bill payment

    February 22, 2019 at 9:21 pm

    I was wondering if you ever considered changing the layout of
    your site? Its very well written; I love what youve got to say.

    But maybe you could a little more in the way of content so people could connect with it better.
    Youve got an awful lot of text for only having one or two images.
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  • Rosie

    February 24, 2019 at 8:09 am

    Fine is a typical fat arse Republican. They’ll do anything to choke public education institutions to push money towards their 1%er friends who are trying to privatize education and reap huge profits. It erodes our democratic ideal of free public education and increases the income divide in this country. But for those parents who are concerned about where their children attend college – check out whose going to teach them. Most of the colleges use adjuncts – that is essentially ‘slave’ labor. Professors or instructors who are paid as little as $5.00 per hour – no benefits, no Social Security, no contracts, no health care, no job security. Their base salary is under 20k per year. Although they’re highly educated and devoted to teaching, many are homeless (or on the verge), and require government assistance for food and other basic services. In Florida, the path to a better life is through higher education, except for those who teach. Chose your school wisely….you may be supporting a ‘ plantation ‘ mentality to teach your kids.

Comments are closed.


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