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Herbert resigns as chancellor of the State University System

Adam Herbert, the top official of Florida's university system and one of the state's most visible black Republicans, resigned Friday from a position set to be eliminated next year.

Herbert earned $264,600 a year as the chancellor of the State University System and will return to the University of North Florida at Jacksonville in a yet- to-be determined administrative role. The university is expected to create a new public policy institute that Herbert would lead.

His departure comes amid political and legislative battles that some of his closest supporters believe had become too much for him to endure, particularly in a post scheduled for elimination in 2002.

Beginning then, Florida's public universities will be folded into a new state education system that will oversee everything from preschool to post-graduate studies. The chancellor's position and the independent Board of Regents will be scrapped.

After meeting with Gov. Jeb Bush in Tallahassee on Friday morning to inform him of his decision, Herbert announced his resignation with a late afternoon news release.

``As I do each year ... I have considered the question of whether my professional priorities and personal interests continue to make me an appropriate match for the tasks that lie ahead,'' Herbert, 57, wrote in his resignation letter. ``After a great deal of reflection, I have concluded that it is time for me to return to Jacksonville and the University of North Florida.''

Herbert, who was unavailable for comment Friday, had been president of the University of North Florida for 10 years when he was appointed chancellor by Bush the day after he became governor in 1998. Herbert had led Bush's gubernatorial transition team.

The resignation is effective March 2. Board of Regents Chairman Thomas F. Petway III said Friday the regents will discuss the matter when they meet Jan. 19 and plan to appoint a replacement in February.

In the more than two years he spent as chancellor, Herbert spearheaded several major changes.

As part of Bush's One Florida plan, Herbert was the key architect of the Talented 20 program, which replaced race-based admissions preferences with guaranteed enrollment to the top 20 percent of graduates in every public high school in Florida.

Herbert pushed through a plan to assign clear missions for each of the state's universities. He also persuaded a sometimes-reluctant Legislature to increase university spending by double-digits in each of his three years.

But the political firestorm last year when House Speaker John Thrasher, R-Orange Park, successfully pushed for elimination of the State University System drew the reticent chancellor into an uncomfortable position.

Herbert was never consulted before Bush, Thrasher and other legislative leaders constructed their plan, a move that surprised the chancellor, who considers both men his close friends.

``It was the most personally gut- wrenching decision I had to make as speaker,'' Thrasher said Friday.

He wants Herbert considered for the state's overall education chief when the system's revamp is complete.

``My hope was always that he would head it up,'' he said Friday. ``I think that would be the most important job in the state outside of the governor.''

While other regents, politicians and university presidents crusaded against the elimination of the State University System, Herbert maintained virtual silence after he made an initial, scathing attack.

In his resignation, Herbert made no mention of the education overhaul directly, only asking that the regents ``provide information and policy advice to Gov. Bush'' as the transition moves forward.

Regent Welcom Watson said Herbert was repeatedly undercut by lawmakers as payback for his opposition to their plans.

Herbert objected last year to the creation of law schools at Florida A&M University and Florida International University and a medical school at Florida State University. The Legislature approved all three anyway.

``There has been controversy on practically everything we've had since his appointment,'' Watson said. ``He's gone through it with great dignity. I can certainly understand why he's resigning.''

Watson said Herbert's quitting should send a broader message that Florida's higher education overhaul is not headed in the right direction.

``I think the citizens of the state of Florida should wake up and realize what's happening,'' Watson said. ``If we continue the way we're going, the prestige of the university system is going to be destroyed.''

The controversy continued this week when Florida's senior U.S. Sen. Bob Graham, a former governor, called the transition a ``cataclysmic train wreck.'' He will offer an amendment to the state Constitution to preserve the Board of Regents when a committee charged with creating the new education system meets Monday in Tampa.

Regent Steve Uhlfelder has also attacked the system's demise. He said Friday the political maelstrom surrounding the transition should not taint Herbert's legacy.

He said he doubted Herbert would return to Tallahassee in any administrative role.

``I think he's more interested in an academic position than an academic/political position,'' he said.

Other statements from the political and academic world were perfunctorily complimentary.

University of South Florida President Judy Genshaft thanked Herbert for supporting her since her tenure began in July. She added that the universities have all benefited from Herbert's ``wise counsel.''

Bush called Herbert a ``forward- thinking educator'' whose career is marked by helping increase access to college educations for minority and disadvantaged Floridians. The governor said he was ``saddened'' to learn of the resignation and will continue to seek Herbert's counsel on education issues.

``He has been a distinguished and respected leader to the people of Florida,'' Bush said.

Staff writer Ben Feller contributed to this story. Joe Follick and David Wasson cover state government and can be reach at (850) 222-8382.

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