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

Bad blood

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The University of Central Florida thought state lawmakers would be sated with last week's ritual sacrifice of President Dale Whittaker. They were wrong.

Whittaker convinced the Board of Trustees this was the only way to get past investigations into the university's illegal misdirection of $85 million in leftover operating funds, which were used to build a $38 million replacement for a decrepit academic building known as Trevor Colbourn Hall. In a letter, he told the board that it had been "made clear" to him that, without his resignation, UCF would face ongoing recriminations from state leaders.

"I offered my resignation as a way to end punitive measures and threats, and restore normalcy to a healthy relationship," said Whittaker, who took over the position from retiring President John Hitt about eight months ago. "Florida needs a UCF that serves our students and community without fear of what the future may bring."

During 90 minutes of emotional speeches, tears and effusive praise at a Feb. 21 board meeting, some trustees fought the alleged injustice of Whittaker's resignation. His wife, Mary Whittaker, said threats were made to her husband and the school.

"In my eyes it seems that the state legislature is acting as a bully to force its agenda," Whittaker's daughter, Erin Whittaker, told the board. "To what end are you willing to allow this bullying to continue?"

But the board accepted Whittaker's decision to take the fall, hoping it would "heal new wounds."

"It's a tragedy for UCF that we're losing him," chairman Robert Garvey said. "His personal sacrifice, willingness to subordinate his own interests for the long-term interests of this institution are a credit to his character."

The potential consequences of not accepting Whittaker's resignation went mostly unsaid – except by Universal Parks and Resorts chief administrative officer John Sprouls, who voted against letting Whittaker resign, saying, "If by this vote it means I should no longer be on the Board of Trustees, I'd be happy to have that conversation."

For a moment, the bloodshed seemed to be over. But multiple investigations continue into what the school did, despite UCF paying back the money and claims that other state universities committed the same offense after years of steep budget cuts. Even though no one personally profited from building the 137,000-square-foot Trevor Colbourn Hall, state officials are hell-bent on showing universities what happens when you challenge their legislative financial authority – and they'll make sure everyone and anyone responsible pays a price. The vendetta against UCF seemingly held by lawmakers is similar to the grudges they hold against local governments, argues Rep. Anna Eskamani, D-Orlando.

"I can't help but make the connection to the vitriol UCF has faced as it relates to cities – especially those progressive havens with energy goals, efforts to protect immigrants and LGBTQ protections," she says. "The Legislature always makes an effort to pre-empt home rule. They're painting a picture of universities as villains, and it's the same type of attitude they take with local government. It's an exhibit of control."