Editors note: This article first appeared in the Feb. 16 edition of the East County Observer.
Keith Fitzgerald is a full-time, tenured professor of political science at New College of Florida in Sarasota. He is also running for Congress, which is generally accepted as a full-time job as well.
The combination has caused some New College trustees to question whether Fitzgerald should retain his full-time state job and salary while running a campaign for national office — particularly as Gov. Rick Scott has urged universities to be more careful and accountable with their financial resources and student outcomes.
So Fitzgerald is discussing with college administrators the possibility of reducing his teaching role in the fall semester, or even go so far as to choose teaching or the campaign, at least for the duration of the campaign.
“Professor Fitzgerald’s … decision to curtail some of his teaching obligations and run for a seat in the U.S. Congress is a disappointment to me,” said New College Trustee John Saputo in a written statement.
“Running for U.S. Congress is a demanding, distracting and time-consuming task. I was hoping that when Keith decided to run for political office ‘again’ that he would take a six-month sabbatical without pay … This would have been the best course of action for New College and Keith’s students.”
But Bob Johnson, chairman of the New College Board of Trustees and a former Republican state senator, said there is nothing the college can do, and it is a no-win for it to try to force anything.
“Keith Fitzgerald has tenure,” Johnson said. “He has a union agreement. As long as he does not inject his campaign into the college, I’m not concerned about the quality of his work,” Johnson said. “I’ve talked to Keith. He’s pledged a positive campaign.”
State Sen. Mike Bennett, R-Bradenton, holds a similar view.
“My personal feeling is that teaching college is not really a full-time job anyway,” Bennett said. “But he’s entitled to (run). I wish more people would run for office.”
But state Rep. Ray Pilon, R-Sarasota, sees it differently. Pilon defeated Fitzgerald in 2010 to win the House seat he now holds and questioned at the time how Fitzgerald could be a paid state legislator and full-time state college professor at the same time.
“When he was in the Legislature being paid, he was also being paid by New College,” Pilon said.
Further, Pilon also was a state employee as the director of communications for the Peace River Manasota Regional Water Supply Authority. During his first session last year, Pilon took an unpaid administrative leave from his state job because he could not do both at once. He has since resigned from the state job and is an independent consultant.
“I did not get paid for two state jobs,” he said.
Fitzgerald, a Democrat who is paid an annual salary of $70,077 at New College, declined to be interviewed, but issued the following statement:
“Keith Fitzgerald, Ph.D, continues teaching in the Political Science Department at the New College of Florida as he has since 1994. In addition to his course load, he maintains regular office hours, assists colleagues and consults with his advisees.”
Fitzgerald, during his time in the Legislature, had students go to Tallahassee for some part of the nine-week session when he had to be there full time, having them write papers on what they saw. He did not have formal class sessions for those months.
Some of the concern about Fitzgerald’s duties has been prompted by an Oct. 11, 2011, letter to all state university and college presidents, in which Gov. Scott requested a list of measurements to determine how well professors are teaching, students are learning and young people find employment in their field.
“I want Floridians to have the opportunity to obtain the best education for which Florida taxpayers are willing to pay,” Scott wrote to the universities and colleges. “I have always believed the only way to ensure increasing levels of performance is by measuring outcomes using objective, data-driven criteria in a fully transparent environment.”
The letter is part of the governor’s drive to improve state universities and ensure accountability. Saputo said he thinks Fitzgerald’s decision to keep teaching while running for Congress is counter to the governor’s goals.
Fitzgerald, who is running against incumbent U.S. Rep. Vern Buchanan, R-Longboat Key, is not the only college teacher who is, or has been, in the Legislature.
Rep. John Tobia, R-Melbourne, is a professor at Valencia Community College. Rep. Michelle Rehwinkel Vasilinda, D-Tallahassee, is a professor at Tallahassee Community College. And Senate President Mike Haridopolos, R-Merritt Island, is an instructor at the University of Florida.
Haridopolis was, for a few months last year, in the same situation as Fitzgerald now. The Merritt Island Republican was hired in 2010 by the University of Florida to be a general education lecturer. After starting his Senate campaign, he dropped out of the race last June so he could focus on being Senate president.
“I truly believed I could handle both jobs. But I was wrong,” he said in a video announcing the end of his campaign.
But as long as Fitzgerald can show up to teach his classes and any other duties, he must be allowed to keep his position and salary under his union contract.
Professors at New College and Florida’s other 10 universities are unionized, represented by the United Faculty of Florida, which is part of the American Federation of Teachers under the AFL-CIO. Sarah Hernandez, head of the New College chapter of United Faculty, was adamant that neither Fitzgerald nor anyone else should get special treatment.
“The union would object to any special deal for individuals,” said Hernandez, a professor of sociology at New College. But she added that the union is there to protect Fitzgerald’s rights under the contract.
Under the union contract, Fitzgerald must teach his two courses and any tutorials each semester to retain his full salary. As long as he does that, he is free for other pursuits.
New College administrators are looking for a way to make sure students get appropriate attention while allowing Fitzgerald the freedom to pursue Congress in accordance with his union contract.
“We expect him to fully discharge his duties,” said Steve Miles, New College provost and vice president for academic affairs. “It will be a great amount of work for him.”
Miles has been in discussions with Fitzgerald and said the professor is continuing his normal teaching courses in the spring semester, is off for the summer as normal and then may cut his teaching in half for the fall semester running up to the November election. That fall reduction would include some sort of reduction in salary also.
But Fitzgerald is not just a unionized state employee, he is a tenured college professor. “Tenure’s importance is that you will not lose your job unless you do something so outrageous it does not warrant continuing your employment,” Hernandez said. Tenure, she said, is designed to protect free speech for professors.
Plus, the union contract allows for professors to take time off for other pursuits. For instance, every six years, professors are given six months of paid leave called research assignments, or sabbaticals, to pursue some study in their field. As a political science professor, Fitzgerald could consider his work in Congress — or perhaps even running for Congress — as research for political science. He has not said he will do that.
Miles said that while Fitzgerald’s tenured position would have to be renewed every two years if he is in Congress, it could be renewed continually. While he would be in Congress, New College would hire a temporary replacement professor to teach those courses until Fitzgerald returned.
LEGISLATURE CONSIDERS BAN
This is not the 55-year-old Keith Fitzgerald’s first foray into politics.
In 2005, he won the Florida House District 69 seat by beating Republican Laura Benson 51% to 49%. He won one re-election before losing to Ray Pilon in 2010.
That arrangement also required altered treatment by New College for Fitzgerald because the Legislature meets full-time for nine weeks in the spring each year.
Provost Miles said that Fitzgerald took a 25% reduction in duties and pay during the spring semesters while he was in the Legislature. Then in the summer, he was given a temporary administrative appointment assisting the provost (not Miles at the time) with curricular planning. In one year, the summer work allowed him to maintain his full-time salary, in another year it did not, Miles said.
This type of situation — and others that appeared to be quid pro quos — prompted the Legislature to look at banning university employees from being legislators.
A Senate ethics bill doing that recently passed the Senate Rules Subcommittee on Ethics and Elections on a 7-6 vote. The bill bars lawmakers from taking positions with universities within two years of leaving the Legislature.
The bill is in response to several years of news stories on legislators and their state college jobs. The most controversial stories were on Rep. Ray Sansom, a Destin Republican who helped funnel millions of dollars to Northwest Florida State College and then left the Legislature to work for the college.
The bill is sponsored by Sen. John Thrasher, R-St. Augustine, who thinks having lawmakers on the payroll of colleges creates the perception of a conflict of interest because the Legislature funds the colleges. “It’s been the subject of a lot of concern,” Thrasher said during the subcommittee meeting.
Members of the Legislature are already prohibited from lobbying lawmakers for two years after leaving the Legislature.
The bill does not affect Fitzgerald’s run for Congress.