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SAMUEL PROCTOR ORAL HISTORY PROGRAM at
the University of Florida
UNIVERSITY OF FLORIDA
ORAL HISTORY PROGRAM
INTERVIEWEE: Alan Merten
INTERVIEWER: Deborah Hess
April 4, 1989
H: This is an oral history interview with Dean Alan G. Merten of the
College of Business Administration, University of Florida. It
will be deposited in the University's Oral History Archives.
Today is April 4, 1989, and I am interviewing Dr. Merten in his
office in Bryan Hall on the University of Florida campus. My
name is Debra Hess.
Alan G. Merten has been dean of the University of Florida College
of Business Administration since 1986. He received his
bachelor's degree in mathematics from the University of Wisconsin
in 1963, his master's degree in computer science from Stanford
University in 1964, and his Ph.D. in computer science from the
University of Wisconsin in 1970. He has been a professor in both
an engineering college and a business school. Early in his
career he worked in the Pentagon and the White House. He has
lived and worked in Hungary and France. Immediately prior to
coming to the University of Florida, Dr. Merten was associate
dean for Executive Education and Computing Services at the
University of Michigan. He is a director of Comshare, Inc., and
a member of the Whirlpool Corporation Information Technology
Advisory Council. His Florida-based activities include the
Governor's Select Committee on Workforce 2000, the Speakers
Advisory Committee on the Future, the Southeast Venture Capital
Advisory Group, and the Gainesville Regional Airport Authority.
Would you state your name for me, please?
M: Alan G. Merten.
H: Tell me a little bit about yourself. Where were you born?
M: I was born and raised in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. I went to high
school in Milwaukee and spent my first two years of college at
the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. My junior and senior
years I attended the University of Wisconsin-Madison. During
that period of time I became involved with computing, and that
was what I did for most of my professional career. After
graduating from Wisconsin I worked for the Los Alamos Scientific
Laboratory in New Mexico. Then I went into the air force in the
summer of 1963.
My first assignment in the air force was to get a master's degree
from Stanford. I spent one year in the master's program,
eventually in computer science, and I graduated in the summer of
1964. Then I went to the Pentagon to work in the air force
computer center. I was in the air force computer center from the
summer of 1964 to the summer of 1967. Also during the middle of
that three-year period I was one of President Johnson's social
aides at the White House.
H: That is fascinating. Tell me what you did there.
M: I was one of the approximately fifteen White House social aides.
All of the White House social functions included at least some of
us. For state dinners all fifteen would be there; for a small
luncheon only one or two of us. It was our job to make sure
people were comfortable at the White House. We gave them someone
to talk to and told them where to go and what to do. I did that
from March of 1965 to January of 1967, when I married. At that
time, you had to be a male, you had to be a bachelor, and you had
to be assigned to the Washington area for some other reason.
H: Specifically, how were you assigned there?
M: Well, there are two stories to that. There is the version told
by the other aides and me: you had to be bright, witty, good
looking, charming--all those things. But our wives subsequently
described it differently: you had to be slightly taller and
slightly older than Lynda ["Lady Bird" Johnson]. Chuck Robb
[governor and senator of Virginia] was another one of the aides.
That was a good experience. I did that for about twenty months.
We did everything at the White House.
H: Did you meet some fascinating people?
M: We met everybody who was anybody during that twenty-month period
of time. We went to the White House an average of two times a
week--sometimes as much as three or four, sometimes as little as
once. It was a great experience.
After that, I decided to get out of the service, and I went back
to get a Ph.D. in computer science at Wisconsin. I went back in
the summer of 1967 and I received my Ph.D. in the summer of 1970.
I then joined the engineering faculty at Michigan in 1970, and I
was an engineering professor until 1974.
At that time I became more interested in the business
applications of computing, and I transferred my appointment to
the business school at Michigan; so in 1974, I became an
associate professor of business administration. For the next
twelve years I did everything from being a researcher and teacher
in the computing area of business administration to being
chairman of the computer and information systems department. I
eventually began working with executive programs; I designed a
couple of programs and taught a couple. In 1983 I became the
associate dean for Executive Education and Computing Services at
the University of Michigan. I spent a year in France on
sabbatical, and when I returned I spent two more years as
associate dean. I came to Gainesville in the summer of 1986.
H: Before we get into Gainesville, tell me a little bit about where
you met your wife. Tell me her name.
M: Sally was an air force nurse. One of the down sides of being a
White House social aide is that we were quite socially active.
We partied a lot, and I became sick as a result. I was in the
hospital at age twenty-five with an ulcer, and Sally's roommate
was my nurse. She brought Sally by to see me. Sally had been in
the air force for a little over two years at that time. She
worked on the pediatrics ward, so she always reminds people that
she was not my nurse. I met her while I was in the hospital, and
after awhile I started dating her.
After we started to date, a whole group of nurses was taken out
to Travis Air Force Base in California. This was during the Tet
offensive. The air force decided to station nurses on the west
coast, and Sally was one of the nurses who spent four or five
months taking care of the patients that came back. It was a hell
of an experience--so scary she does not talk about it. After we
were married both of us stayed in the air force for nine months,
and then we were discharged.
H: When were you married?
M: We were married in January of 1967 in Washington. We stayed
there for nine months, and then we went to Wisconsin.
H: Subsequently you had two children?
M: Eric was born in Madison when we were in graduate school. He is
now nineteen and is a sophomore at Michigan in political science.
Melissa was born when we lived in Ann Arbor. She was born in
1972, and she is a junior at Gainesville High School.
H: Tell me a little bit about your decision to come to the
University of Florida. When did that all come about?
M: I wanted to be a business school dean, but there were only about
seven or eight schools that I considered. Given the kids' ages
and my interests, I did not want to live in a big city. I wanted
to go a good university with a good business school in a nice
city. If you restrict yourself to that criteria, there are only
about that seven or eight schools. Fortunately for me, during
the 1985-1986 academic year, when I was looking, there were about
five of them looking for deans. It was amazing. My name was
listed on all the searches.
I eventually came down here to interview. I made the decision
based on the normal criteria. A lot of the decision was driven
by my family; everyone felt comfortable about Florida. It was a
tough move for Eric because he was a senior in high school when
we came here. Melissa was going to be a freshman, so it was
great for her. We made the decision.
We had been very active in Ann Arbor. It was tough to leave.
Someone said, "If the Mertens can leave Ann Arbor, unfortunately
anyone can leave Ann Arbor."
We threw ourselves into it. In my first eleven days in Florida I
traveled to ten cities and met 2,000 people. I did that as a way
to become familiar with the state and the people. My strategy
over the last three years has been to be visible locally and
throughout the state. I think that helps the University, and it
helps me. It serves as a model for others at the university;
frankly, I do not think others have done a very good job at this.
H: To create high visibility and meet business leaders?
M: To be involved with the community and to show the business
community that the university can be involved. We wanted to show
that the University had people who can add to the economic
environment of the state and be involved in political activities,
as well as the academic environment.
H: What were some of the characteristics or qualities of Gainesville
which made you decide that this was the place where you would
want to bring your family?
M: First, it was time for us to move to the South. I lived in
California and Michigan, and this was something different, so it
would be something that we had not done. So the South itself had
something to offer. I thought out of all the places in the
South, Florida would probably have the best economy. I did not
want to get involved in a business school where the economy was
not good. The people I met during my first visit, and then whom
Sally met when she came back after I got the job offer, were very
pleasant and enjoyable to be with, and we felt real good about
One of the reasons we came here was Gainesville High School.
Sally literally went and interviewed the high school principals
around town, and she felt very good about Gainesville High
School: the kids, principal, and teachers. We knew that wherever
we were going to move that was going to be important, and we felt
very good about it. So that, frankly, was as much as anything.
We knew the kids would be secure, and we felt that if that were
the case we could survive anything else.
We lived in Hungary in 1974. We were one of the first American
families to live in Hungary that were not part of the United
States government. We lived in France and put our kids in French
schools. We lived in California on sabbatical for awhile. So we
have survived and thrived in some hostile environments. When I
told them we were moving to Florida, they said, "Dad, we have
survived France and Hungary. We can handle Florida."
H: You were consulting in Hungary?
M: Yes. In France, I was on sabbatical teaching at a business
school in Fontainebleau. In Hungary, I was part of the United
Nations Development Program for the summer of 1974 teaching
Hungarians how to teach computer science.
H: Do you speak Hungarian?
M: No, they just learned to speak English. Sally learned enough
Hungarian to get by, but she has forgotten it.
H: Let us talk a little bit about development in Gainesville and
Alachua County. What factors do you see in the county that are
either inhibiting or promoting growth in the business sector?
M: To begin with, the University of Florida both inhibits and
promotes growth. For so long the University was the only game in
town. As it grew, people became very lazy and said, "We do not
have to do anything pro-actively to promote growth. There are
more students coming, and they need more support services, so
that is all we have to do." So I think the University of Florida
historically has been one of the inhibitors of growth.
Another inhibitor of growth in this community, up until 1986-
1987, was the Gainesville Sun. I have never been in a town--and
I told the New York Times officers this when I first came here--
where the newspaper such a negative to producing what was
required for a viable economy. It was awful, and it had to
change. Fortunately, the New York Times realized that. [The
Gainesville Sun is a New York Times regional newspaper. Ed.]
The third roadblock to responsible growth is that there was no
counteraction to unreasonable statements made by the anti-growth
leaders for such a long time. Much of the anti-growth sentiment
came from people at the University, which did not help, either.
The community thought, "They must be pretty smart, because they
are from the University," and no one said anything to oppose
them. The case for responsible growth was not being made. There
probably was some irresponsible growth in the middle of all that,
too. If you do not manage something, you get irresponsible
actions as well.
H: Let us go back to the Gainesville Sun. Do you want to be
specific about the things you think they were doing?
M: The Gainesville Sun, if nothing else, created terrible animosity
in this community. People hated the paper, and I had never heard
that before. The Sun was irrational; it had editorial policies
which were very slanted. From what I saw in my first several
months here, it enjoyed attacking people. I lived in California
during the beginning of the growth in Silicon Valley, and I saw
in the San Jose Mercury an example of a newspaper that was a
major cog in growth. The San Jose Mercury not only reported what
was going on, it played a role. I told the New York Times people
that I felt the Gainesville Sun was exactly the opposite. It
guaranteed that things were not going to happen.
Gainesville has a beautiful ability as a collective community to
ignore problems. A perfect example of that is I never saw a run-
down house in all my visits here when I was being recruited; all
I saw was lily-white neighborhoods. These people had found
routes to take Sally and me around town so we never saw poverty.
I am sure that if it was not deliberate, it has been done
deliberately so many times that people unconsciously knew how to
get someone around to avoid the "bad" areas. You can avoid
poverty, and you can avoid unemployment and underemployment if
you are properly employed in this town. I think it is criminal.
H: In an area where we have so many of our school children on free
and reduced lunches, we just assume that nothing is wrong.
M: That is where I blame the University community: tenure-track
faculty or even worse, tenured faculty, can state glibly that we
do not need any more economic development, since they personally
do not need any more economic development. Someone in this
community told me that he hoped that the community did not grow
too much; if it did, salaries would go too high, and he could not
get his grass cut for ten dollars. Then he would have to pay
that poor black person what it was really worth, as opposed to
the ten dollars. That statement was one of the reasons that I
involved myself in economic development. I was just appalled by
H: What kinds of economic development do you think should be
encouraged in our county?
M: The first thing we have to do is make sure we respect the
businesses that are already here. There has been a lot of talk
in this community about bringing in new companies, and I think
that is fine and dandy. But unless you make sure the companies
that are here have the opportunity to survive and thrive, why go
look for some new ones? I thought Environmental Science and
Engineering's request for sewage and water provided a classic
example of how not to handle local business. Here is a company
that provides the right kind of jobs, and that provides jobs that
lead to other jobs; yet they were getting all this flack by
irresponsible political people both in the city and the county.
So I think first you have got to make sure the people who are
already here are not taken for granted.
Secondly, remove naivety, which, in this case, is thinking that
we will homegrow all of our industries. Some politicians say we
are going to grow all of our own cottage industries. This just
is not the way it is. One of the most poorly used statistics in
this community is the quote about how many jobs are created
nationally by small business as opposed to large business. The
mistake in that number is that most small businesses are created
by people who leave large businesses. If you look at what has
happened in Silicon Valley or Route 128, the majority of the jobs
were created by people who were in a small company, but they were
also people who had worked for Digital [Equipment Corporation]
and had left to form their own company. You have to have some
relatively large activities to create growth.
Finally, Alachua County will not grow, will not thrive by itself.
We have to do something between Alachua County and Marion County.
I believe the coupling of the two counties is one of the key
components of economic growth.
H: Let us talk about that a little bit. Why do you see that as
being so important?
M: Part of the reason is because they complement each other. This
county has the University, and therefore more of an intellectual
climate and some resources with respect to ideas that are useful
for business development. On the other hand, Marion County has
had much more of a pro-growth approach, and therefore has been
successful in attracting new businesses that provide jobs of all
different types. When you market yourself, if you market either
one of the two, you are going to miss something. But if you
market them together, as a combined economic development area,
your chances of getting someone are much higher. That is
starting to happen.
I was quoted in the newspaper as referring to the rift between
Gainesville and Ocala as a bunch of baloney, and I think that is
actually what it is. It was believed, at least prior to 1986,
that people in one county did not like the people in the other
county. For all that I can figure, there were five outspoken
people in Gainesville who did not like five outspoken people in
Ocala, and both sets were fools. It was just foolishness.
H: What kind of development would you like to see occur between the
M: I would like for people to realize that if they moved to either
county, they would have access to both communities, that somehow
when they perceived their community they would include everything
that existed in both counties. I can be at the Hilton on 1-75 in
forty-five minutes. That is almost trivial in terms of getting
around. We just have to view the community resources as being a
combination of the two. I think you could find one community
becoming a bedroom community for the other. I think people could
work in one and live in the other; we already do that to some
One real solution I see is that we could see people in two-career
families where one works in one city and one works in the other.
I gave a talk yesterday to a group of Alachua and Marion County
executives, and I told them that our problem as a University is
what we jokingly refer to as the "two-body" problem. We are
trying to hire one of the spouses, and we have to try to find a
job for the other. The ability to do that in either one of these
two communities is very limited. You are still limited if you
combine the two communities, but we currently make too little
effort to combine them.
I think we could see ourselves having technology-based companies
and service companies. At the same time, I would love to see one
more Gates Energy [Products] and at least three more
Environmental Science and Engineering [currently Hunter
Environmental Services/ESE] in Gainesville itself. Go and drive
through southeast Gainesville: those people are not going to be
able to work, at this point in time, for ESE. But if they were
trained properly, they could work for Gates, or a Gates-like
company. If we had another one of those, with its fourteen
hundred jobs, we would have a lot better place.
H: There is a difference between quantity of jobs and quality of
jobs, obviously, when you talk about Gates as opposed to building
another McDonald's or Wendy's. What about training and schooling
for people here?
M: There are a lot of stories, and I do not know exactly which is
the right one. My impression is that we do not have sufficient
training in certain medical areas for the non-college graduate,
nor do we tie the people to the training in some of the
mechanical skill areas. I do not know if this is a problem of
the unavailability of programs, or not finding a way to get
people into them, or our having the wrong kind of training
available. I have listened to conversations where a corporate
executive says, "We cannot find anyone here who is well trained
for certain jobs," and the school system people say, "We have
programs to do that, and we produce graduates." So somehow we
have gaps in certain restricted areas in what the companies need
and what the education system is providing them.
H: Let us go back to the Ocala-Gainesville connection for a minute.
I know you serve on the Gainesville Airport Authority. The task
force studying the feasibility of an airport between the two
cities has come up with the answer that the money is prohibitive
at this point. How do you feel about where that is going right
now? Is that discouraging?
M: Several people tried to get me embroiled in the battle early on
by asking me how I could be on the Gainesville Alachua Regional
Airport Authority and be interested in relationships between the
two counties: "You will have to pick one or the other." The
approach I took was I thought it was very important that we do an
airport feasibility study and that the study should show what
kind of traffic we are going to have. I am glad we did the
I am not surprised that the numbers say it is going to be very
costly. Airports have become extremely costly, and the federal
government is less excited about funding airport construction
right now. Florida suffers from that because we probably need it
more than other places.
I hope that the task force would continue in existence as a
transportation authority to look at transportation throughout the
two counties, including what we need in airports. At some point
in time we are going to be able to demonstrate better the need
versus the cost of an airport between the two counties. This may
sound radical, but I would be grateful if we would combine the
airport authority in Ocala with the airport authority here in
Gainesville, just to get the two authorities together to keep an
eye on air traffic. We are going to have to do it. Right now,
though, the numbers are just not there.
H: As folks are moving into the county and surrounding areas to
these new jobs, there are going to be services that they will
need--schools, police, fire, etc. How do you envision our paying
M: The question of how you pay for things is primarily a state
problem, and secondarily a metropolitan area problem. For years
I have given talks around the country on different topics, and I
use the throwaway line that there is no such thing as a free
lunch. I believe there is a sizable segment of Florida that has
convinced themselves there really is a free lunch. The sun comes
up every day, the trees look good, and if everything is that good
there must be a free lunch out there somewhere. If not, someone
else is going to pay for their lunch: "I am not going to have to
pay for it." So there is enormous confusion in people's minds
with respect to how much it costs to do something. People came
to Florida expecting something special, and they demand it. At
one of our meetings with [former Representatives] Buddy MacKay
and Jon Mills recently, I told them one of our problems in
Florida is that people believe God gave them Florida, and if God
gives it, it must be cheap; therefore, they do not have to pay
for it. That is the retiree's approach. But it is not just the
retiree's approach, it is most people's approach. So one is a
failure to recognize the cost to do something.
Secondly, there is a cost to catch up. We cannot ask how are we
going to pay for future growth--you first have to pay for past
growth. That is what the state comprehensive plan and the Zwick
commission report lay out beautifully, but it is totally ignored
by people, particularly in government.
One example of economic naivety is the discussion of impact fees.
You cannot use impact fees to pay for past sins. You have first
got to get back to the level where you can say you have adequate
services for what we now have in place. Then you charge impact
fees for future growth. We are not there. If you do not believe
it, ask anyone who took six and a half hours to get from St.
Petersburg to Gainesville last Friday. The traffic on 1-75 was
supposedly the worst it has ever been. Fortunately, many of the
business leaders of the state of Florida were caught in the
traffic coming to Gainesville. I think it was very fortunate
that it happened that day.
Now, locally, it is just one step down. It is sort of this same
assumption that someone else will pay for it: "I cannot afford
it," or, as some of the retirees have said to me, "It would be
backing down from a contract that I have with the state of
Florida. I came here expecting it to be cheap, and now you are
going to make it more expensive to live here."
H: In fact, many part-time residents of Florida have changed their
residency to Florida from Michigan or Wisconsin because of the
M: I think we have to have taxes on services. We have to have taxes
on consumption. I do not think we need an income tax. Income
tax is prohibited by the [Florida] Constitution, so you would
have to change the constitution. It is just the wrong way to go.
We need a very broad-based sales taxes, and some of the revenue
should be made available at the local level. We need leadership
in the state and in the county, and we do not have it.
H: So many of the sales dollars are from people who come here from
outside of Florida, and that would be, in effect, a nice tax.
M: Twenty to 25 percent of all the gasoline tax paid in this state,
and 20 to 25 percent of all the sales tax paid in the state, is
paid by non-residents. It is incredible.
H: For which the residents then get the benefits. But you do not
see state income tax at this point as being advisable?
M: No, I do not see it. It would have to get extremely bad here
before that would occur. It could get that bad--by 1991 or 1992
it could get so awful that people will finally do something.
There would have to be gridlock somewhere before they would
really do anything like an income tax. But maybe a sales tax on
services will come back. I think a sales tax on services will
return, and it will not be broadly based, initially. It will be
narrowly based, and then it will spread, which is what it should
H: Why do you think it was shot down?
M: It was too broad. It included the journalists--never include
newspapers when you start! Get them later. That was a mistake.
Also, the governor was gutless. If he had held on for about six
more weeks he would have been okay. All the legislators went
back to the Rotary Club meetings and took a beating. They did
not know what to say, so they called him and he caved in. My
theory is if he had held on through the first football weekend,
that is all we would have needed. Then people would have been
worried about football and would have forgotten the sales tax.
H: It seems like every time you read about the local governments now
they are talking about impact fees. If you could gather together
the Alachua County commissioners and the city council people,
what would you say to them about impact fees?
M: I think it is a great idea, but first clean up the problems that
we have. First, put in a taxing system. Find a way to generate
revenue to solve existing infrastructure shortfalls, be they in
schools, roads, water and sewage, general transportation. Get
some tax--utility tax or a half-penny sales tax--in place, and
estimate the revenue generated by that and what needs it will
met. Then, given that we now have that in place, determine how
are we going to pay for additional services that are going to be
required by the new development. The way they are doing it now,
they scare off the developers. They say, "Why should I have to
pay now for a shortfall which has existed for years?"
H: So much of the property in the county and city is off the tax
rolls because it is owned by the University of Florida or is
personal property that is under the [Homestead] exemption limit.
I know that a lot of them feel like so much of their property is
tied up on non-taxable sources.
M: There is not much you can do with the University. That is an old
battle every university town in the world has gone through, so I
do not see that changing. But the Homestead exemption is another
matter; we should not have the Homestead exemption. Why should
someone be exempted from paying property tax? They send their
kids to school, they use the roads, they use the water system.
Everyone should have to pay a little. It particularly affects
poor counties like this one.
H: Let us talk about the University as an employer a little bit.
You already mentioned that you felt that it was a problem for the
community because we have relied for so many years on the growth
of the University to create more jobs, both on the campus and in
the supporting jobs in the community. In the last few years, the
entrance requirements are going up and the enrollment at the
University is deliberately reaching a plateau. How do you see
that affecting employment both on the University campus and
within the community?
M: We have already seen that as a university gets smaller or does
not grow, this economic engine of the university, in terms of
providing service jobs, has been removed. There is just not
going to be increased economic development as a result of the
existence of the University. We hope that as the University
becomes more of a graduate institution it will provide faculty
and graduate students who will spin jobs out of the University.
For example, a faculty member and some graduate student may
decide to set up a company, and that company then employs people.
That has happened in some cases here. It has happened a lot
nationally, much more than it has happened here. I think that is
going to happen, but that is a long-term process. You have to
develop the faculty for it, you have to develop the
entrepreneurial attitude on the behalf of the faculty, you have
got to have the right kind of rules in the University to allow
that to occur, and that is not instantaneous.
H: Right now, as I understand it, employees of the University are
almost discouraged from any entrepreneurial activities.
M: It is getting better. We talked about that yesterday in a
session, and I feel it is getting a little better. The
University has done, from what I can tell, all it can to
encourage entrepreneurial activities, considering the constraints
from the state legislature. The problem is having the right
faculty and providing facilities for them, and that is going to
take awhile. As the University shifts from undergraduate to more
of a graduate orientation, these types of spin-offs could happen.
The short-term problem is if the state of Florida continues to
underfund education, then the University's ability to become a
more viable graduate research institution could be limited. This
ability is necessary to fuel the Gainesville economy. I view the
next two years as relatively flat in terms of anything exciting
happening at the University for a variety of reasons.
H: Is one of them funding?
M: Mainly funding. The governor will not do anything innovative.
He wants to get re-elected, and he has decided the way to get re-
elected is to not have any new taxes. He does not have any
money, so he just will not do anything. There is also a lack of
a permanent [University] president, and I think things are going
to be flat. Unfortunately, that is going to affect the community
H: Do you see as part of your job this outside fund raising and
traveling through the state?
M: I spend an average of a day and a half a week traveling. Yes,
I would say that is a major job. I view my job as fund raising
and friend raising statewide. I obviously see my job as
including activities on campus, but I also see the community
role. When I came I was stunned by people who told me I was one
of very few academic administrators to be involved in the
community. I did so little initially, but they were so pleased I
was almost awestruck by it all. I did not have to do anything
special--it was just that no one else had done much before.
H: What types of things do you really enjoy?
M: I enjoy getting together with business leaders from around the
state to learn more about their business and their community, and
telling them about the University. We want to help them know
more about the University so they will get involved in our
Just yesterday we started something called the Business Leaders
Forum. We have twenty-seven chief senior officers from companies
in Alachua County and Marion County who have joined this Business
Leaders Forum. We will meet with them three times a year to talk
about general business issues, but at the same time we will talk
about how we can improve economic activities in the two counties
when it is appropriate. We charge them $1,000 each and will
spend three half-days with them. Our first speaker yesterday was
Carol Taylor West, who talked about how to interpret an economic
forecast. The topic of a talk by [former U.S. Senator] Lawton
Chiles was "How Should Business Leaders Help and Influence
Responsible Political Leaders?" I wrote him that title, and he
picked up on the two words that I deliberately stuffed in there.
One of them was "help." The second one was "responsible," and he
laughed when he read that. He said, "Most people ask me to talk
about how to influence political leaders," so he appreciated my
two additional words. He talked about how you get the right
people to run for office and become political leaders, how you
establish a dialogue with political leaders before you need
something from them, and how you should not make demands of them.
If you demand, you will never get what you want.
H: He put it all in a positive framework. Everybody works better
under those circumstances.
M: Oh, yes.
H: Tell me a little bit about how this business leaders group
M: It is something I heard of that was successful at other
universities and local communities over the years, and it is
something I thought someday I would try. I became convinced that
it had to be launched by someone who was visible in both places
and who really did not have anything to win or lose by one
community winning out over the other. I was also worried about
the University faculty, which was relatively disinterested in the
local business community. In a research university, our goal is
to make faculty internationally known, or, as I said in my talk
yesterday, "intergalactically" known. It seems to me that it is
almost criminal to be internationally known and yet not service
the people who are within thirty miles.
Last year we hired John Wyman, who retired early as regional
vice-president of AT & T. He is a graduate of the University of
Florida College of Business. John came to teach our business
policy classes, and he is just outstanding. When I met John--I
had been thinking about this [Business Leaders Forum] project for
awhile--I thought he was the guy I wanted to run it, because he
would be credible and he would be able to do it in a hurry. We
identified six of my friends--three in Alachua County and three
in Marion County--and John tried the idea on them. Eventually,
he convinced all six of them to do the project. Then we sent a
letter to about forty people saying that those six were going to
do it and asking them to join us. We eventually got twenty-seven
people to join, so we were really pleased. We figured if we had
fifteen we would declare victory.
H: What is the title of the project?
M: It is called "Business Leaders Forum," and it is for Alachua and
Marion county executives only. It is by invitation, and you
cannot send a substitute.
H: Do you see this as being a way of not only bringing the two
communities together, but also involving people from the
University with the business leaders?
M: Yes. There are three objectives. The first objective is to
provide a way to educate the individual executive. This is
something from which they should benefit personally--not just
have value to their company. Second, it is a way for the
University to have a better dialogue with the executives and the
companies in the two communities. The third goal is to identify
problems that they might be interested in and use that as a way
to stimulate certain faculty teaching and research. If yesterday
is an example, it is a winner. This is John's responsibility
H: That sounds like a great way to tear down some of the ivory
M: There was a lot going on yesterday. First of all, there were
people from Ocala who had never met each other--they had come to
the University of Florida to meet each other. We also had people
from Gainesville who had never met each other. These are all
prominent people who simply had never seen each other face to
face. I invited Bob Bryan, acting president of the University,
Will Harrison, the liberal arts and sciences dean, and Win
Phillips, the engineering dean, to come to lunch so they could
get involved; I do not view this as something strictly for the
College of Business.
H: Do you get a lot of feedback from the business community about
what they want to see coming out of your school?
M: In general, throughout the state, and nationally, we do. I am
involved nationally as well. I think locally we have not had
that much input, but I think that is just because of the
relatively narrow-based economy. As these two economies grow,
then we will get more input from executives around here. But we
get a lot of advice from everyone on what we should produce.
H: What kinds of things are they asking for?
M: Well, they ask for a lot, and sometimes it is impossible. The
accounting firms are my favorite. I visit the accounting firms
and ask them if we should make our students broader with better
speaking skills, etc., or should we make them more technically
knowledgeable about all the trends going on in accounting: the
answer is yes. Do it all and do it in four years. So we are
basically trying to do it all. In general, there is this push in
business education to make people broader and more aware of what
is going on. It is very difficult to cover all the bases, but
there is still a big demand for business graduates.
H: I would like to get back to Tallahassee, now that the legislative
session is starting up this week. There are really going to be
some problems, it looks like, for the University of Florida.
[State Representative] Sid Martin will not be rallying for the
community. Governor Martinez has said no taxes--that is his
answer for everything. How do you see this affecting life here
at the college, and then how does that affect the community?
M: The first statement I want to make concerns something that bugs
me, and that is I have never been in a place where the local
representatives were perceived as the primary spokespeople in the
legislature for the university. That is just awful. That this
happened was a serious mistake. If this occurs, you do not
create a state university or a university that has the state
mission that it should have. Then you are too affected by the
ebbs and flows of politics. One year you will have the speaker
of the house, and the next year you do not even have your full
complement. We are paying the price of not establishing a broad
base of support for the University. We do not have a broad base
of support. The University of Florida probably will get its
appropriate piece of the pie, but the pie is too small. The
whole education pie is too small.
I am also concerned that we are operating beyond our means as an
institution. In anticipation of what we all believe should
happen--we know that there are resources in the state because we
know all the people are here--we say, "Any day now the state is
going to pay for it." So what we do is we promise: it has been
promised to those of us who came recently, and we promise it to
people that we hire. We spent next year's money this year. We
are always doing that, figuring eventually someone is going to
pay for this year's activities this year. I am concerned that if
we ever have a year when there is a cutback it will all unravel
in a hurry, and it will be a disaster. It is sort of betting on
the future, and if that future does not come, we could be in real
trouble. The ongoing process is a problem.
The current situation is specifically bad. We have a governor
who appears unwilling to face economic reality, but is clearly
faced with political reality. I will bet anyone anything he will
be re-elected. I think anyone who tells me the opposite is just
wishing. He will be re-elected because he has figured out how to
get re-elected. He will not do anything to jeopardize that, and
the cost will be in the basic infrastructure of the state. After
he gets re-elected he will take more of a leadership position.
He cannot run for governor again, so he may decide he really has
to do something when he is re-elected. That may be good.
H: It seems to be another case of if we ignore a problem or not talk
about it, and then it does not exist.
M: There is a lot of that. And again, the sun still shines. My
other favorite Florida line is "it is better than it used to be."
Whatever that means, I have no idea. The University tries, or
continues to survive at least, by a combination of state money
and private money, but that is a very risky business. We are
soliciting private money more and more, and that is being used to
provide services that the state should provide. That, again, is
a situation you can get away with for awhile, but not over the
long term. I think we are going to go through a couple of bad
years, and then hopefully there will be some sort of sanity
through the whole mess.
H: What would be your top three priorities here in your area if the
funding were available? Not unlimited funding, but adequate
funding. What would be your top three priorities?
M: The first one is support services for students and faculty:
counseling services for students, secretarial support for
faculty, travel support for faculty, more student placement
services to help students get jobs. The whole support
environment is always inadequate because somehow there is an
unrealistic model of what it will take to support faculty and
students. The second goal would be for facilities. We, in this
college, will be pretty well off after they renovate this
building. But the reputation of this whole university is
hindered by its facilities. Facilities are clearly a major
problem in engineering and in liberal arts and sciences. The
third need would be to be able to go back and take money that I
now spend on basics and have that to do innovative things, to
support everything on a state budget that I believe should be
supported by a state budget.
H: As the University tries to encourage more graduate students to
come or to stay here, there seems always to be the problem of not
having enough money for the funding of assistantships in teaching
and in research, so many times we are not able to attract the top
quality graduate students. On paper, the University says it
wants to do that. How do you see that problem in your college,
and what do you think can be done about that?
M: The major problem is that the state of Florida perceives graduate
students who receive financial support from the state as being
employees. As long as that exists we are going to be marginally
effective. It faces an individual dean with the following
dilemma: you do not have enough money to support graduate student
assistantships at the Ph.D. level. You have no money directly
allocated to that, so the only way you can adequately support
Ph.D. students is by not hiring faculty; use that money to
support Ph.D. students. Then your classes are too big and all
these other bad things occur. That is the issue that has to be
Maybe if enough people start screaming, something will be done
about it. That is the big change that is going to have to occur.
Once that occurs, once people start saying graduate students are
not employees, or they are only employees for part of their Ph.D.
experience, things will improve in that regard. It could be as
simple as optimistically assuming that Ph.D. students are
students for three years. If we say that one year they are an
employee of the state, one year they are funded by the state, and
the third year someone else finds money for them or they are an
employee of the state again. Basically, if they are viewed as
someone that the state must support a minimum of one year out of
the three, my God, the whole place would change. But right now
we do not even have that one year. Therefore you have to trade
faculty dollars for graduate students, or you go out and continue
to use private money for it. Again, that is improper.
H: Do you think that is because graduate students are not perceived
as really adding anything to the University?
M: Yes, I think they are viewed as replacement teachers for faculty.
I see that attitude changing to some degree already, but it is
going to take awhile. The case is going to be a tough one to
make, partly because of the State University System. There are
so many schools in the Florida's State University System who have
no or at most minimal graduate student representation; they do
not understand the difference between a graduate and
undergraduate. They do not understand what it means when a
graduate student leaves and goes somewhere outside the state.
What does it mean to the faculty or to undergraduate students
when she or he is here? That has not been understood the way it
should be. Therefore, we struggle for funds for graduate
students, but it is always at the expense of something else, so
we feel guilty.
H: Now that the power base of the legislature has changed in the
last couple of years, there seems to be a lot more legislative
power in south Florida than there had been in the past. Do you
see that affecting how the educational pie is cut?
M: Unfortunately, yes. I am still a little optimistic. I am not as
pessimistic as I could be because the legislators are educable.
You have to get to them, you have to be with them, you have to
have something to sell them. I think we have a good group of
deans here who are better salesmen than there has been
historically. Just as we should not have become so dependent on
local legislature city and county, we now have to be very
aggressive and establish a relationship with the statewide
legislative system. Similarly, we have to establish a strong
relationship with the executive branch and not just rely on the
H: How does that happen?
M: Sometimes it is just as simple as holding events around the
state. I hold events in Miami. We send announcements to
everybody who moves. Every alumni in the Miami area gets one.
We send a packet of information on the Bureau of Economic and
Business Research to all key legislators and ask them to call if
they have any questions. You have to keep these people informed.
It is not only their fault that they are so ill-advised. We were
sloppy and lazy, and that has to change. You cannot lay back and
say, "We are so good. They should love us. Why do they not?"
We have to be a little more entrepreneurial. I can get in
anyone's office if I am just willing to be a little persistent.
I walk up and down the streets of Miami going in to see chief
executive officers in a firm where I have not made an
appointment. I will just go and tell the receptionist, "I am
Alan Merten. I am the dean of the College of Business at the
University of Florida. Is Mr. So-and-So here?" I get in just
about anywhere I want.
H: It must be that smile. [laughter]
M: They are human. You have to tell them what you are there for and
tell them what you represent and can do for them. For a place
that has had a lot of problems, we are extremely elitist with
respect to the rest of the state. "Why would we want to go
there?" My first trip around the state was fun and interesting.
H: It is more of a person-to-person thing than it is an institution.
M: One reaction was "he did not ask for money when he came. He was
trying to find out from us what we thought our problems were and
what the University of Florida should do." I met them on their
turf, as opposed to our turf. Now when I ask them to come, which
I do regularly--we asked 100 corporate executives to come to
campus last year--they have a little guilt because I went there
first. To call and ask someone to come when you have never been
there is less successful.
H: That really made a big impact?
M: It made a major impact.
H: Just to kind of wrap things up here, if you could look into the
future for our local area, what would be some of the most
important things that you would like to see happen in the
community, not only to encourage business growth, but the whole
package--to raise the standard of living in Alachua County in
Gainesville for the average person?
M: The thing I would want to happen is raising the standard by
raising up the bottom. I feel no matter what we do to have more
jobs for brain surgeons or business school deans and faculty, if
at the same time we do not raise the standard of living for the
people at the bottom I am not going to feel good about it. Two
of the first people I met when I came here were Rosa Williams and
Avis Butler of United Gainesville. They taught me a lot, and
they were very supportive.
The second thing that I would like to see happen is when we
recruit graduate students and faculty that we do not even have to
think about this two-body problem, either because of what has
happened here or in Ocala or somewhere else. It would just make
so many of the things that we do much easier. I cannot believe
how many hours a year we throw away at trying to hire someone who
wants to come but who cannot find a job for their husband or
The third thing I would like to see in the community is that we
stop viewing anyone who is responsible for growth as someone who
rapes the land. We have come a long way, and I give the
newspaper and others a lot of credit for that.
The final thing I hope happens is that there is enough money in
the community so that the same people are not always involved in
every charitable activity. The people who always scream and yell
about the developers and the business community raping them and
their environment fail to realize that those developers and
businessmen are the same people giving to every charity that
exists. Look at who is on the list when the Hospice [North
Central Florida] has an event. Look who is on the list when the
heart fund has an event. Look who is on the list for United Way.
Look who is on the list for the Boys Club and the Girls Club. It
is that same group of people. What I have seen in the three
years that I have been here is that there are more and more
groups competing for the same pot of money. It is a shame that
we do not have the economic viability to provide the social
environment that we should. I see the same people getting
involved, and they are running out of energy. One more social
welfare need that comes on the scene is going to find out that
there is nobody left.
H: Thank you so much.