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Monday, Sep 22, 2014
Commentary

Young ramped up universities’ research portfolios


Published:

Congressman C.W. Bill Young, who died Friday night, did a great deal for so many.

The bulk of the recent commentary about him has focused on our Tampa Bay area. That is appropriate. But what many might not know is what Young did to ramp up university research across this great state.

Regular guy Young was hardly what one would consider a “wonk.” But Congressman Young was responsible for an incredible public policy initiative that any wonk would admire. He did it his way, quiet, and with his wonderful staff behind the scenes.

Here’s what happened — and it is a very good thing:

Over a decade ago, Young and other members of the Florida congressional delegation were frustrated as the dickens. Several were serving in positions to help our universities, but they were being lobbied right and left by each of the then nine state universities. Priorities were admirable but sometimes conflicting. Which one should be supported?

Our institutions were competing with one another, and, I hate to say, we were sort of beating up our friends. It was crazy. Every institution was in the “me-first” mode, so the members were conflicted.

Don’t get me wrong — some good things happened. But the results were not nearly as significant as Floridians deserve.

It was a mess.

Chairman Young figured out that if our state universities kept going on this way they’d never reach their full potential. At the same time, he had absolutely no interest in wasting one penny of the taxpayers’ money. He wanted cost-effective solutions to our nation’s problems, and Florida’s great universities could deliver them. But we had to change our approach in Washington.

He explained the situation to the then Board of Regents, advising the chancellor, the board and the university presidents that it would be a good idea if they would get the state of Florida’s higher education’s federal act together. He asked them to cut back on all the end runs. He requested a priority list, focusing on each university’s respective research priorities and then a statewide list, as well. It had to be national and/or global in impact. He wasn’t interested in “pork.” He wanted the delegation to look at and advocate a Florida package of national importance that would improve lives for all Americans and beyond.

Some might think that the universities would have balked at his direction. Not at all.

Faculty started out a tad skeptical but actually grew to love the challenge. They got together, department by department, college by college, and hashed it out. The presidents and their teams put together an integrated research portfolio that was the envy of the nation. Each state institution, big or small, focused on its primary research strengths and partnered, when appropriate.

It was wonderful. And it worked.

This led to a decade of federal investment in absolutely awesome research. Our world is a better place because our state universities focused.

As I read the accolades about Young after he announced his retirement, I smiled at the fantastic USF research accomplishments he helped us launch. Forgive me for my green-and-gold parochialism. All politics is local! But all of us who are blessed to live in Bulls Country will be delighted to know how much our Tampa Bay area neighbor, Bill Young, did to help all of Florida’s research universities solve the problems of today and tomorrow.

There aren’t any Bill Young sound bites here, just a little wonky good government.

Kathy Betancourt is a former lobbyist for the University of South Florida.

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