Frank Brogan climbed a very tall career ladder in Florida that took him from classroom teacher to chancellor of the State University System, always by exceeding expectations.
In his early days, I had the privilege of watching him reach every rung.
Which is why I have to believe it was heartbreaking for him Tuesday to announce his retirement as chancellor of Pennsylvania's state university system, a $364,000-a-year job, coming as it did in the shadow of a consultant's report calling his agency "plagued by weak leadership and dysfunctional management."
Brogan, 63, notified the board of governors privately, hours before release of findings about declining enrollment and financial struggles across the state's 14 universities.
According to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Brogan released a statement calling the strategic review that led to the consultant’s study perhaps the most important act in the 34-year history of the system, which enrolls 105,000 students. He did not link the consultant’s findings, or fallout from it, to his decision to retire.
“This is the System’s opportunity to make bold choices that will ensure our universities are here to meet the needs of our current and future students and the Commonwealth for decades to come, and beyond,” he said.
“While there is never a perfect time for a transition such as this, my family and I know we leave behind a system that is primed for the future, led by a team that is committed to making sure our students always come first.”
The Board of Governors has always supported Brogan and now express regrets over his departure.
“We wanted a change agent when we asked Frank to come here four years ago, and we got one,” said Guido M. Pichini, chair emeritus of the Board of Governors. “While we are all deeply sad to see him leave, we all know that, because of his leadership, courage, and dedication, this System is better poised for success than when he arrived.”
Brogan, a native of Cincinnati, Ohio who married his high school sweetheart, began his education career with his wife Mary in 1978 in the Martin County (Florida) School District. His first job was teaching fifth grade at Port Salerno Elementary School, then he moved to administration in 1981, serving as dean of students at Indiantown Middle School, then assistant principal, and finally principal of Murray Middle School. He was eventually elected to two terms as Martin County superintendent of schools.
In 1994, Brogan came out of nowhere in political terms, to be elected Florida commissioner of education. In fact, he was the youngest education commissioner in Florida history.
Brogan was seeking a second term in 1998 when Jeb Bush asked him to be his running mate as lieutenant governor. The Bush/Brogan team won the general election. And the next year, Mary Brogan -- a popular figure in Tallahassee -- lost her battle with breast cancer.
As lieutenant governor, Brogan oversaw education policy and acted as legislative liaison for the Bush Administration. Bush and Brogan were re-elected in 2002 but Brogan departed to become president of Florida Atlantic University in 2003.
In full cry, Brogan's service to Bush was a real partnership. Brogan is credited with authoring Florida’s “Bush/Brogan A+ Plan for Education,” which, according to testimony he gave before the Florida Subcommittee on Early Childhood, Youth and Families Hearing on Academic Achievement in 1999, was "a comprehensive accountability system ... that significantly raises the achievement bar."
In fact, the Bush/Brogan A+ Plan served as the Republicans' blueprint for privatizing and charterizing public education across the country. In 2001, Brogan’s work earned him a place on George W. Bush’s 31-member education advisory panel to manage the transition to the Bush era of education reform. Many expected Brogan would run for governor when Bush's second term was done.
At age 49, in 2002, Brogan married 26-year-old law student Courtney Strickland.
A gubernatorial run was not to be. Brogan became the fifth president of FAU in 2003 and was reappointed by the FAU Board of Trustees to a second six-year term, which began in 2009. But he quit the job the same year to become chancellor of the State University System of Florida.
Brogan took office as chancellor during a time of real acrimony between the Florida Legislature and the Board of Governors. Nevertheless, he was the longest-serving chancellor since the creation of the Board of Governors in 2003.
I can only guess, at this point, why Brogan chose to leave his post as chancellor of Florida's university system, a system three times the size of Pennsylvania's, move his family from the Sunshine State to the freezing rain state, and step out of Florida’s persistent political spotlight. All at a pay cut.
Some in Pennsylvania postulated he was positioning himself for a run at governor in 2018. Others feared he would “transform” the system into a higher education version of charter schools, and that it would help propel him to a cabinet position if Republicans took the White House back in 2016.
We are unlikely ever to know for sure.
Brogan has not announced whether he and his family will remain in Pennsylvania, return to Florida or begin a new chapter in their lives elsewhere.
Reach Nancy Smith at email@example.com or at 228-282-2423. Twitter: @NancyLBSmith