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The end of oversight



A decade ago, the University of Central Florida was a sleepy campus of 20,000 students. It lacked importance, and ranked behind the University of Florida and Florida State University as the college of choice for high-school seniors.

Then came John Hitt. UCF president since 1992, Hitt pushed the campus to add classrooms and students, to outgrow its reputation as a commuter college where, as the oft-repeated saying went, "U Can't Finish." In 10 years, UCF nearly doubled in size to 39,000 students. It developed a football program that put a starting quarterback in the NFL. It created a world-class engineering program.

It also ignored the wishes of its neighbors.

In the early '90s, while UCF was starting its growth spurt, subdivisions of single-family homes popped up around it. The subdivisions are popular with upper-middle-class homeowners with a taste for the quiet suburban life. But UCF was providing beds for only 7 percent of its students on-campus, meaning thousands more moved into high-density apartment complexes that dot Alafaya Trail, bringing extra noise, crime and traffic with them. The homeowners blamed UCF, saying the university should house more students on campus.

At first, UCF dismissed their complaints. But as public pressure mounted, and as homeowners took their case to the Orange County commission in 1999, UCF started to give.

The university pledged to build 1,600 more beds on campus, bringing its percentage of on-campus housing to 15 percent. Then it found a quick fix. In 2000, the UCF Foundation acquired two of the most troublesome privately run apartment complexes -- Knight's Krossing and Knight's Court -- and turned the massive complexes into UCF-managed apartments.

Suddenly, and without actually adding apartments to the area, UCF had nearly 20 percent of its students housed "on campus."

UCF solved its housing problem. Homeowners didn't care for the solution. "They have absolutely no regard for the public, no regard for their neighbors," says Linda Dorian, president of the Riversbend Homeowners Association.

"They tend to look at things not beyond their borders," adds Seminole County Commissioner Grant Maloy, whose district abuts UCF to the north. "I haven't gotten a feeling they're real superserious about what goes on down the road."

The proof that UCF doesn't care about its neighbors, say critics, is in the master plan it unveiled last May, which spells out growth plans for the next 10 years. UCF wants to continue growing fast by adding 10,000 students in the next eight years, making it the biggest university in the state. Meanwhile, the university made only a small commitment to student housing, promising only to keep at least 15 percent of its students in university-run facilities, reserve land for two new student-housing facilities and redevelop an existing dorm to increase density. But the university did make room for an 18-hole, 218-acre golf course in the plan.

"It's an irresponsible use of campus land," Dorian says.

Homeowners' protests led the state to order trustees to hold another public hearing in January before a final vote. It did. Six people spoke, all critical of the university's plans. A Seminole County planner told the board that his county had no properties left near the university for off-campus student housing.

Even UCF students oppose the rapid-growth scenario. "The expansion and growth envisioned in the master plan seems unrealistic and irrational given the university's ongoing problems," opined The Central Florida Future, the campus newspaper. "UCF already lacks professors and classrooms to accommodate the current student population."

UCF trustees, all 13 of whom were appointed by Gov. Jeb Bush, endorsed the master plan anyway.

For opponents of UCF's growth, the game is over. A few years ago, they could have appealed to the state's Board of Regents, which was charged with taking the politics out of state university decisions. But the Board of Regents disappeared during Bush's first term. The governor replaced them with local boards of trustees, which he himself appointed.

In November, Florida voters backed Amendment 11, a constitutional initiative pushed by Sen. Bob Graham -- over the objections of Bush and other Republicans -- re-establishing a regent-like body, now called the Board of Governors, to reign in parochial interests.

Such a body, if it had an independent streak, would throw a kink in Bush's control of the higher-education bureaucracy. But Bush wasted no time undermining the new Board of Governors' watchdog credibility. He used his 14 appointments to the 17-person board -- the state's education commissioner, the Florida student-association president and a statewide representative from the faculty senate also get a seat -- to appoint political allies who opposed Amendment 11. In fact, the leader of an anti-Amendment 11 group found her way onto the board.

At its first meeting in January, the state's new Board of Governors abdicated all of its authority to local boards of trustees, meaning it will not review UCF's master plan.

UCF says that's no big deal, noting that other governmental agencies must sign off on the master plan.

"The fact that the governing board is not looking at the master plan doesn't abolish the university from having to go through the same state approvals and regulations," says UCF spokeswoman Linda Gray.

UCF's growth, she says, is spurred both by Florida's rising numbers of high-school graduates and by the fact that FSU and UF are running out of room. It simply can't be avoided -- and she thinks UCF is letting the demand of new students drive the growth process. In other words, Gray says UCF isn't growing for the sake of growth.

"This university is taking care to doing things the right way," Gray says.

But UCF also acknowledges its neighbors are ticked off. It is stepping up PR efforts to counter what it deems some serious misperceptions.

Dorian, an attorney, says it's unlikely UCF's neighbors can block the master plan, though she's not giving up.

"For all of us who live within three miles of the university, we have concluded that UCF's administrators are so callous they have effectively declared war on our community. We are prepared to fight back with any means necessary. They've sowed a lot of ill will."


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