Jeb's Boy

FAU's new president, Frank Brogan
Colby Katz

Nicholas J. Kalman sits on the edge of the high office chair and bends his slender upper body over the desk in front of him, neatly clasping his hands together. He has a caring smile, perfectly parted hair, and an honest, freckled face that'll get him far in the affairs of state. "What I did, I didn't do for politics," he assures in a slow, careful voice, as if making sure every word is right.

On the wall behind Kalman's left shoulder in the Boca Raton office of Florida Atlantic University's student government is a blue poster proclaiming "Jeb!" Kalman is a proud supporter of Gov. Jeb Bush, a former intern in the governor's public affairs office who claims to have "strong leads" on jobs as a Republican congressional aide.

But he didn't have politics in mind the day he pitched in to help Bush put his lieutenant governor, Frank Brogan, into the president's chair at Florida Atlantic. "What I did, I did for the students of this university," Kalman says earnestly, letting a pause hang in the air.

On January 30, a day before the university's Board of Trustees was to pick a president after what was purported to be a nationwide, nine-month search, Kalman introduced a resolution before the Republican-dominated student government declaring that Florida Atlantic students supported Brogan to be their next president. Perfect timing. Kalman has newspaper clippings to remember his triumph. The headline in the Palm Beach Post the next day declared: "If FAU trustees follow students, Brogan wins."

Criticism of the resolution came much too late to matter. The student government had decided in the name of the entire student body at the last hour, says Kelly Tyco, editor in chief of the student newspaper, University Press. "Nick Kalman and the others said they represented the students, but no one took a poll," Tyco says. "They did this at the last minute so no one could complain about it."

Kalman's resolution was the perfect clincher to the complicated, back-door maneuver, apparently engineered by Bush and his handpicked trustees, to give Brogan the job. According to critics, the all-encompassing search promised by those trustees was a cleverly devised charade that assured the school would end up with the least-qualified yet most well-connected candidate. In the end, Florida Atlantic finds itself with a president who bears little resemblance to the lofty academicians heading big American universities. The 49-year-old Brogan has no experience as either an administrator or a teacher in higher education; his only graduate degree is a master's in education; and he was hired over the vehement objections of the Florida Atlantic faculty. What he has are proven skills at navigating the corridors of state power.

By most accounts, the well-polished Brogan, a five-mile-a-day runner with a tenacious work ethic and an outgoing, 26-year-old wife, excels at the cocktail-party politics necessary for fundraising at a university. But his true test, and the test of the political process that assured him his job, will be whether Brogan can raise Florida Atlantic past its designation as a fourth-tier university and free it from fundraising scandals. Among the state's public universities, the school currently has the highest tuition and lowest standards for scholarship awards. More embarrassing, though, is FAU's high-profile fundraising controversy, including an alleged $42,000 secret gift to the university's former president, Anthony Catanese. State law enforcement investigators are looking into charges that university employees misspent donor money. University officials recently locked two dozen employees out of their offices to protect against a cover-up.

In his first day on the $368,000-a-year job earlier this month, Brogan promised to fully investigate the fundraising scandal and shot back at critics of the Republican-controlled search for a president. He assured his new employees that he sees Florida Atlantic, with its seven campuses from Dania Beach to Port St. Lucie, as a top-tier university. "We are teetering on world-class status," Brogan says.

But then Brogan went back to Tallahassee. He hasn't begun working full-time in Boca Raton, spending most of his days in the capital lobbying for Florida Atlantic. He isn't expected to arrive until May, and some trustees are reportedly getting edgy. Because of the financial scandal, donors have recently expressed reluctance to send the university millions in promised contributions, and the university's top fundraising administrator is still on paid leave. So far, Brogan's political contacts haven't helped FAU to clear the controversy. Bush has a stake in the former lieutenant governor's success. A failure at Florida Atlantic could draw criticism of the political process used to choose Brogan, a process that shows just how valuable it is to be a friend of Jeb Bush's.

A day before Thanksgiving last fall, Florida Atlantic was supposedly a week away from picking its next president. Eight months had passed since Catanese announced his resignation after 12 years. It was a difficult task to replace him, but the decision would become easy when Bush's people stepped in.  

Despite the scandal accompanying his departure, Catanese was an extraordinarily successful administrator. In his tenure, Florida Atlantic added four campuses, doubled the number of students to 25,000, increased the endowment by tenfold, and started a football program. To pay for the expansion, Catanese managed a massive fundraising effort that has allowed the university to embark on $33 million in construction projects.

The committee assigned by the university's Board of Trustees to find a president to emulate Catanese had already narrowed down a list of applicants to three by last fall. A consultant hired to help the trustees find a president had already run up bills that could total $100,000 (though Florida Atlantic has not released a final tally on the costs of the search). University employees set up interviews for the finalists, arranged hotel rooms, and bought them plane tickets.

Then, the head of the search committee, George Zoley, had a change of heart. In an extraordinary maneuver, Zoley, vice chairman and CEO of Wackenhut Corp., sent an e-mail to the other committee members canceling the interviews. He wrote that the process was moving too fast and worried that the university was going forward without thinking through its choices. Not surprisingly, most of the other search committee members and trustees, all Bush appointees who together have donated more than $385,000 to the Republican Party and its candidates, went along with the decision. They agreed even though Zoley did not have the authority to arbitrarily cancel the meetings without a vote of the trustees or the search committee.

Trustee John Temple, a Boca Raton developer, was furious. Zoley's assertion that the committee was moving too fast ignored the considerable time already spent, Temple says. "Usually it takes three or four months to do a search and we'd been at it for seven months."

On the Monday following Zoley's November surprise, Brogan stepped forward as a possible candidate. Two sources close to the search process told New Times that, although his memo had not mentioned Brogan, Zoley knew of Brogan's intentions and halted the search for his benefit. And the two more months spent interviewing candidates after Zoley's e-mail were a ruse designed to bring in a president anointed by Bush.

Zoley, whose company has donated $260,000 to the Republican Party and $1,100 to the Bush campaign since 1996, denies that he delayed the process to allow Brogan to enter the running or that he knew of the lieutenant governor's intentions. "That is really old news," he says from his office in West Palm Beach. "We're moving ahead now."

It might be easy for Zoley, who has since been elected chairman of the Board of Trustees, to dismiss questions over the search process, but months later, inquiries still dog those involved. Earlier this month, Temple, now on the state Board of Governors, which oversees public higher education, called for an investigation. "The process was manipulated," says Temple, a Republican. "We should find out by whom." The Board of Governors, all Bush appointees, has made no progress on any investigation into the search process, nor has its government arm, the Department of Education, which is run by Jim Horne, a Republican appointed by Bush.

Brogan is quick to dismiss his critics, saying the process was handled openly, without external pressure. A review of it, he said, would only lead to "micromanagement."

But questions about Brogan's appointment linger. Trustees were quick to call him the front runner after he merely hinted in December that he might seek the job. Then, Brogan waited to make his candidacy official until the day after he was sworn in January 7 for his second term as lieutenant governor. Critics say trustees delayed the vote. Legal experts disagree on the interpretation of the state constitution, but the move may have allowed Bush to appoint his successor, former Senate President Toni Jennings, rather than force a special election to find a new second-in-charge.

State Rep. Chris Smith, a Fort Lauderdale Democrat, contends the process sheds light on how things happen under Bush, and it will likely draw more attention to other appointments. "It was a done deal as soon as Frank Brogan said he wanted the job," Smith says. "Everyone knew their place in this."

It's still a mystery how Brogan became a candidate in the first place. No one involved has admitted to contacting him about the job, and the new Florida Atlantic president has glossed over the subject, saying he received calls from several people involved with the university. Zoley and others on the board were criticized during the selection process for holding secret meetings with candidates, but they deny having such a meeting with Brogan.  

Many critics are betting that Brogan was asked to apply by Board of Trustees member Sherry Plymale of Palm City. Plymale was Brogan's campaign chair in his successful 1995 bid to become Florida's education commissioner and then served as his chief of staff. But Plymale says she wasn't the one who called Brogan. "I wish I was smart enough to think of that, but I wasn't," she jokes. Despite the secrecy surrounding Brogan's last-minute application, Plymale says the search process was fair. "I don't agree [with critics] that the process was controversial," Plymale says. "Did some people not apply because his name was in the hat? Yes, that's true. But the list of candidates we already had was very good."

The search committee narrowed the applicants for a second time in January to three finalists: Brogan; University of Louisville engineering dean Thomas Hanley; and Stanley Fish, a literary scholar at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Three days later, Fish dropped out. The obvious political connection Brogan had with the university's leaders was enough to convince the academic he didn't stand a chance. "There's politics within a university and politics [from outside] that involve it," Fish says. "This was all politics."

Fish, one of the country's best-known professors, was profiled two years ago in The New Yorker, which described him as an eccentric genius. Both admired and hated for his unorthodox ideas and management styles, Fish impressed the search committee with his confidence. He promised Florida Atlantic would receive immediate national attention in higher education circles, something that would surely attract top professors. But Fish, also a Republican, says he sees now that such academic connections aren't valued as highly as political links. "I don't feel that it was rigged, but I think most people knew the outcome before it came," he says.

The most vocal critic of the search process has been Florida Atlantic math professor Fred Hoffman, who speaks for the faculty on the Board of Trustees. Hoffman continually criticized Brogan's lack of experience in higher education and lack of a doctoral degree, which is virtually required for tenured professors. Hoffman says he'll support Brogan now that he's president, but acknowledges that he is the board's resident cynic.

"I like to think that I did the right thing," Hoffman says in the waiting area outside his cluttered university office. "I don't fear retribution because I have tenure. But do I recognize that people won't hire me because of what I did? Well, at least I don't have plans to look for a new job."

The little things seem more important in seventh grade, and for Tim Shipman, losing his first love back in the spring of 1985 must have felt like the end of the world. Or, at least, the end for him.

So 14-year-old Shipman brought something extra to Murray Middle School in Port Salerno back on April 26, 1985: a .357 Magnum. He pulled the handgun out in the middle of a hallway before lunch and told his buddies of his plans to end it all. A crowd gathered as his friends tried to stop him. Shipman ran, heading for a parking lot behind the cafeteria. Following him was an upstart assistant principal named Frank Brogan.

When Shipman stopped, the gun still in hand, Brogan slowly approached. The students watching from afar and crowded into classrooms didn't hear what Brogan said that day, but one student, Jennifer Swartzlander, now a 29-year-old doctor's assistant in Brandon, can imagine. "Mr. Brogan always makes you feel like your issue is the most important issue he has to deal with, even though so much is going on with him at once," says Swartzlander, who still exchanges Christmas cards with her former assistant principal. "He genuinely cares about you."

Deputies closing in on Shipman with their guns drawn made him nervous. He raised the .357 toward his temple. Brogan lunged. They struggled, a shot rang out, and in the end, the assistant principal seized the gun. Neither one was hurt by the stray bullet. Shipman, now 32 and living in North Carolina, doesn't discuss that day but says he owes a debt to Brogan. "He's a good man, I'll say that."

Those who knew Frank Brogan the teacher and school administrator weren't surprised by his brave actions that day. The incident quickly established the assistant principal as a force in public education and a possible up-and-comer in politics. Since then, though, Frank Brogan, the politician, has acquired a passel of critics, who say he deserted his roots as a teacher. Brogan's career as an educator, and his rise through Republican ranks, couldn't have been predicted from his upbringing. His father died at age 43 of a heart attack when Brogan was four, and his widowed mother, who had only an eighth-grade education, worked nights to send her six children off to school. Brogan often jokes during speeches that his siblings decided by lottery who would go to college, and he received a bachelor's degree from the University of Cincinnati in 1976.  

After moving in 1978 to Martin County, Florida, for his first job in education, as an elementary school teacher, Brogan spent just five years in the classroom before he was promoted to assistant principal and then principal. He took night and summer classes, and earned a master's from Florida Atlantic in 1981. He went on to study for a doctorate in education at Nova Southeastern University, but never finished the degree.

From the beginning of his teaching career, many say Brogan showed signs of his future in politics. Tom Pedonti, a barber in Port Salerno, claims responsibility for Brogan's manicured, Ken doll-style hairdo. "Right from the beginning, I figured he'd be the next governor, the next president, or something," Pedonti says. "I think everybody felt that way."

Early on, Brogan developed the bureaucrat's lingo and gestures, along with the conservative gray suits and simple red ties that make him look like the guest speaker at a Young Republicans luncheon. During a press conference at Florida Atlantic on his first day, March 3, Brogan brimmed with corporate management phrases, including "blend of skill sets," "real life experiences," and "interface with the community." He cupped his hands when saying "rest assured," rolled one hand over the other when mentioning "strategic planning," and raised his right arm skyward when talking about his "vision for the future."

In 1988, just 11 years after his first day as a teacher, Martin County voters elected him superintendent. He retained his job in 1992 when no one ran against him. "I have lots of opposition," he joked. "It's just that nobody filed against me."

Elected as a product of the classroom, Brogan quickly set himself apart from his former coworkers. While students would achieve test scores that topped the state during Brogan's reign, Martin County teachers' salaries fell compared to other counties. A representative for the Martin County teachers' union, would comment only if her name was not used. (She cited the connection between school teachers and Florida Atlantic's education training program.) "The joke around here," she says, "was that Frank Brogan was good at nothing but being a politician."

No school district in the state paid teachers less than Martin County when Florida voters elected Brogan Florida's education commissioner in 1995. And things didn't improve. In his statewide post, Brogan challenged the most coveted facet of the teaching profession: tenure. Sparring with the unions, Brogan settled for rules that made it easier for school districts to dismiss incompetent teachers, instead of doing away with rules that protected all veterans from being fired.

Similarly, Brogan instituted a statewide test that was a model for the FCAT, a program widely despised by teachers, who say such measures of student progress make their teaching overwhelmingly test driven. Brogan also began singling out deficient schools, which helped lead to Bush's ABC plan. It was another policy that quickly aroused the ire of educators, who complained that it served to condemn some schools to failure.

Still, supporters called his changes revolutionary and lauded his increased graduation standards. In 1998, Bush picked Brogan as his running mate in his bid for governor. Brogan used his new job in Tallahassee to aid his alma mater, and future employer, by helping to secure $22 million for Florida Atlantic's expansion projects.

Before Brogan's move to the Florida Atlantic presidency, some political pundits picked him as the next Republican gubernatorial candidate, in 2006, after Bush finishes his final term. Depending upon whom you ask, his move to Florida Atlantic may have helped that cause or ended it.

By leaving behind Bush during the lean years to come, with projected deficits and a struggle to pay for smaller class sizes, Brogan avoids the worst of times, says Matthew Corrigan, a political science professor at the University of North Florida. But Brogan may be jeopardizing his political career by losing name recognition. "Will voters remember his name?" Corrigan asks. "That's something I'm sure he's asked himself."

Dodging a bullet isn't Brogan's style, says Chris Dudlan, a political consultant with Southern Strategy Group in Tallahassee and Brogan's deputy chief of staff during his years as education commissioner. "I don't think he's got any political motivation at all," Dudlan says, repeating an opinion by many who have known him. "What he does, he doesn't do for politics."  

Brogan repeatedly has said he doesn't see his new job as a stepping stone to the governor's office or to a run for the U.S. Senate. On his first day in office at FAU, he blinked rarely and cracked a smile while offering syrupy assurances that he would remain at the school. "I'm honestly sincere when I say how humbled I am and how dedicated I am to this job," he says.

His first order of business as a college president will be a monumental test. His challenge will be to defuse what's quickly becoming a major financial scandal.

Velvet ropes hang over the two stone stairways that wind up to the second floor of the Eleanor R. Baldwin House, the brand-new presidential palace on the Florida Atlantic campus. Carla Coleman, who's in charge of the FAU Foundation, stops just shy of the stairwells during a February 12 tour for New Times. "Here are the rules," she says firmly, her face puckered in seriousness. "No one has been allowed upstairs, so no pictures."

Coleman passes the stairways, through the reception hall currently set for an afternoon tea, and down a back hallway to an elevator that smells like a new Buick. The elevator opens onto the second half of this 14,000-square-foot mansion. There are four bedrooms on the second floor, with an open walkway between them overlooking the reception hall and its new chandeliers, which are worth $49,000. From the front windows, the mansion overlooks the east side of the Boca Raton campus, with its sterile, white, blocky buildings. The master suite, with wood and stone floors and the feel of a pricey condominium, will be Brogan's home when he stops commuting from his house in Tallahassee this summer.

Coleman explains that Brogan will not only make this his home but will also be expected to open it up for university functions. The foundation head walks through the three walk-in closets off the master suite that together would make a good-sized bedroom. "You need this because there's lots of black tie events in this town," she says.

It isn't until the end of the tour, as she stands next to the $17,000 marble and onyx mosaic of the university seal in the foyer, that Coleman addresses the palace's price tag. Under Coleman's direction, the university spent $3 million to build Baldwin House last year, at a time when tuition was rising for graduate and out-of-state students by as much as 10 percent per year and the university was canceling classes due to state budget cutbacks. This symbol of opulence, with a Turkish-style spire on top, has become a symbol of student discontent over tuition increases. At Florida Atlantic, in-state students pay $92 a credit, $10 more than University of Florida. To compensate, Florida Atlantic has the state's lowest minimum test scores for scholarships, giving money to students with SAT scores of 970. Meanwhile, U.S. News & World Report's rankings of colleges puts Florida Atlantic in the fourth-tier of schools that offer doctorates.

Criticism of the president's house and the tuition increases have been described in the University Press, discussed on college websites, and argued over under the cement breezeway where students congregate. Coleman says she hasn't heard any of it. "No students have contacted me," she says. "If they did, I would tell them that it was a different time when we began constructing the Baldwin House. We weren't facing cutbacks and we had plenty of money."

Nine days after that February tour, Coleman's ideas of how to spend money would become the center of a law enforcement investigation that became one focus of Brogan's new job. The probe centers on a $42,000 check cut by Coleman on July 11, 2002, from a university bank account. The check was funneled through a Boca Raton design company that worked on the Baldwin House. The money was then passed along to Sara Catanese, wife of ex-president Anthony Catanese. Two weeks later, Anthony Catanese bought himself a red Corvette that several university employees say was his parting gift. (He left to become president of the Florida Institute of Technology in Daytona Beach.

The gift might not have gotten employees so riled up had Coleman in August not requested a 31 percent pay raise that would bring her salary to $185,000 a year. She also asked for and received, increases for her assistants of as much as 20 percent. Professors, meanwhile, made do with raises last year of 2.5 percent, which, when inflation is taken into account, means a decrease in their salaries. Irate employees complained to trustees, and board chairman Zoley ordered the investigation into the Corvette.

According to Zoley, Coleman initially avoided questions about the gift. He ordered her offices shuttered to protect against a cover-up. "We went as far as we could from the administration standpoint without subpoenas," Zoley says. Coleman and two dozen of her employees were sent home on paid leave. With Brogan's approval, before he had even begun his first day on the job, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement was called in to assist campus police in the probe, and the university hired KMPG, an international accounting firm, to conduct a forensic audit looking for criminal activity in the foundation's bookkeeping. Coleman resigned last Friday.  

The controversy presents Brogan with two major issues. The most obvious is finding out whether the gift was handled improperly. The second issue and perhaps most important task is making sure potential donors aren't scared away. Brogan declined to discuss the specifics of the investigation because it's ongoing, but said he aims to protect the "sacred covenant" between donors and the university.

Several university employees say the inquiry will also question the lack of accountability of the FAU Foundation, which is run by Coleman and charged with collecting money for the university. Operating as a private nonprofit, the foundation is free from most open-records laws and can collect and spend money without direct oversight of the university trustees and officials. The foundation has its own board, which is not answerable to the trustees; this is a standard practice for Florida university foundations. Critics of the alleged Corvette gift say spending money improperly belies promises made to donors that their gifts will go to the university. Two of Florida Atlantic's biggest givers have already said they're considering withholding millions in promised cash. Tom Oxley, whose name is on the athletic center because of the $4 million he's pledged, and Eleanor R. Baldwin, whose name graces the president's mansion for her $2 million gift, have said they're worried about where Florida Atlantic spends donations.

Florida Atlantic officials say Brogan won't start full-time until May, though the scandal now looks as if it could potentially cost the university millions. For what it's worth, Brogan has political connections, which he can call on. It isn't clear how much time Brogan spends as president while in Tallahassee, but Zoley said he last week tentatively secured $10 million for oceanographic studies in Dania Beach.

During his first day on March 3, Brogan, a compulsive positive-thinker, repeated his optimistic mantra several times, perhaps as an indication of his scandal-proof political connections: "Is this a great country, or what?"

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