DeSantis cements grip on State University System after power play at BOG meeting

by | Nov 10, 2023

  • The Florida Board of Governors broke with 15 years of tradition to re-elect Chair Brian Lamb for a second term amid what one board member called “difficult times.”
  • The move also saw Vice Chair Eric Silagy, traditionally next in line for the chairmanship, moved aside in favor of close DeSantis ally Alan Levine.
  • Lamb’s continuation as chair appears to align with Governor Ron DeSantis’s educational agenda, while Levine’s conservative background is expected to heavily influence the board’s direction.

In a departure from at least 15 years of precedent on Thursday afternoon, the Board of Governors (BOG) of Florida’s State University System voted to retain its current chairman, Brian Lamb, for a highly unusual second term. Among Florida political observers, Lamb’s re-election, coupled with the election of DeSantis ally Alan Levine as vice chair, is viewed as a power play by DeSantis allies to ensure the BOG moves in lock-step with the governor’s sweeping education reform agenda. Lamb was appointed to the BOG by DeSantis in 2019.

Formerly known as the Board of Regents before a name change in 2003, the group oversees all 12 of the state’s public universities, including the University of Florida, Florida State University, and others.

The group convened in Orlando Wednesday and Thursday to consider a broad range of measures affecting state-funded universities, including the confirmation of New College of Florida president Richard Corcoran, and to hear a presentation by Corcoran on the subject of New College’s plan to transform the school into a “beacon of conservative education” – a DeSantis priority. But one of the final items on the agenda was the election of the board’s chair and vice chair for the upcoming 2024-2026 term.

That’s when things got interesting.

The election of a new Board of Governors chairperson has, for 14 years, been a pro forma affair in which the vice chair has been nominated to succeed the outgoing chair. There is no hard rule on the matter, but dating back to 2010, the BOG has followed that customary practice to elevate seven consecutive BOG chairs, with all of them having previously served as the vice chair immediately prior. Carolyn Roberts, appointed to the Board of Governors in 2003 by then-governor Jeb Bush, is the only other person to have ever held the post for consecutive terms.

Despite the prior custom, DeSantis’s closest allies on the board had other plans, with Alan Levine quickly nominating Lamb for a second term as chair, observing that the board had “been through a lot,” and that Lamb had led with distinction. Levine, who, like Lamb, maintains a residence outside the state, still maintains longstanding ties to Florida and has been a vocal figure in state educational policy and governance. Levine has been a strong supporter of DeSantis’s efforts to remake New College of Florida.

Tim Cerio, another staunch DeSantis ally, voiced immediate support of Levine’s move, joking that he “couldn’t contain his zeal” for Lamb.

The drama played out quickly after that. Vice Chair Eric Silagy, himself a DeSantis appointee, clearly recognized that despite prior customs, he was not the preferred choice among the assembled board members. While the reasons behind the change in leadership direction can’t be confirmed, Silagy’s relentless scrutiny and outspoken approach to board matters, most recently regarding New College of Florida’s (NCF) future direction, contrasted sharply with Levine and other members of the board and clearly didn’t help his case on Thursday.

In the ensuing silence after Levine’s motion to renominate Lamb settled over the room, Silagy finally spoke up.

Acknowledging Lamb’s contributions over the last two years, Silagy made it clear he felt Lamb had served long enough. Saying he “very much appreciated” Lamb’s hard work on the board, Silagy noted that a long line of Lamb’s predecessors all recognized the importance of stepping down after their two-year terms to foster the injection of fresh ideas into the university system.

“Every one of those chairs…they all served two years and saw the importance of having change and turnover,” Silagy said, addressing the group. “I think it’s healthy for an organization to also have some change of leadership.”

At that point, Silagy nominated fellow board member Charlie Lydecker to take the role as Chair, but sensing the die had already been cast, a seemingly surprised Lydecker quickly withdrew himself from consideration and threw his support behind Lamb as well. But first, Lydecker noted that the board was facing some significant challenges.

“Turnover is good. Change is a positive thing,” he said in agreement with Silagy. “But I also think we’re going through really difficult times right now.”

A question sent to the board seeking comment on the specific difficulties and challenges referenced by Levine and Lydecker to justify Lamb’s retention as chair were was not immediately answered, though a spokesman for the board said that Lamb was traveling and eventually would respond.

From there, the vote proceeded swiftly. With no alternatives, the entire Board of Governors, including Silagy, unanimously voted in favor of Lamb to reprise his role for another two years. But the business wasn’t quite finished. Immediately after that, Levine was nominated to replace Silagy, and it quickly became apparent that he had the votes to win, too.

Lamb, a Florida native and a significant figure in the banking industry as well as an executive with JP Morgan, has been a strong proponent of DeSantis’s initiatives within the education sector. In the private sector, his role in overseeing corporate diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) efforts earned him national recognition as a DEI Trailblazer, and would seemingly put him at odds with DeSantis’s stated views on the subject. But Lamb’s notable avoidance of direct comments challenging DeSantis’s plans to dismantle DEI initiatives are a strong indication that he’s significantly more aligned with the Governor’s broader educational agenda than a casual read of his resume might suggest.

Levine, with his extensive experience in healthcare administration and his past service in the administrations of Florida Governors Jeb Bush, and Rick Scott and Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, also brings a wealth of leadership experience to his new role. His advocacy for conservative approaches in higher education is expected to heavily influence the direction of the BOG.


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