Jeb's Boy

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.

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Eric Alan Barton
Contact: Eric Alan Barton