Former university system leader Reed dies

Reed presided over two of nation's largest public university systems

Photo courtesy California State University
Photo courtesy California State University

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Charles B. Reed, a high-profile figure in Florida who presided over two of the nation's largest public university systems, died Tuesday at age 75.

Reed served 13 years as chancellor of the Florida university system after working as chief of staff for former Gov. Bob Graham.

Reed moved to California in 1998 to lead the California State University system, the largest public university system in the country with 23 campuses, 49,000 faculty and 474,600 students. The system had a peak budget of $5 billion under the leadership of Reed, who retired in 2012 and returned to Tallahassee.

"Charlie will always be remembered as a formative figure in our university's history and as a tenacious, passionate champion of public higher education," Timothy P. White, chancellor of the California State University system, said.

A Pennsylvania native, Reed played football and later went on to earn a doctorate in education from George Washington University. After working at the Florida Department of Education, he moved to the governor's office in 1984 to become Graham's chief of staff.

Reed's blunt, backslapping personal style, in contrast to Graham's more-cerebral approach, was credited with improving the governor's relationship with the Legislature.

In 1985, with Graham's support, Reed became chancellor of the Florida university system, which has since grown into a 12-school system with a $4.7 billion budget.

During his later tenure in California, Reed was credited with expanding enrollment. He also had to balance system growth with a series of major budget cuts caused by the recession.

Although Reed drew criticism for tuition and fee increases and faculty cuts, he considered his management of the California system during the financial crisis as a major accomplishment.

"I may have done some of the best work in my 40 years as an educator these last five years figuring out how to … keep the doors open," Reed told the Los Angeles Times in a 2012 interview.

Reed also kept an eye on Florida's universities and was willing to offer his candid assessments.

He was a longtime critic of the Bright Futures scholarship program, arguing that the merit-based aid was helping too many Florida families that could afford to send their children to college, to the detriment of need-based aid that could help more poor families.

But his prime argument was that Florida lacked a strong, centralized authority for its higher-education system that would make decisions based on statewide benefits rather than a focus on individual universities.

"Florida has a national reputation these days that it has political intrusion on steroids," Reed said in 2012 when asked to comment on the Legislature's move to create Florida Polytechnic University in Lakeland.

He later elaborated on that theme in a 2013 speech to the Economic Club of Florida in Tallahassee.

"Those states that have the best systems are governed by a board that has a plan, and they look out for what is best for the entire state," Reed said. "I'll get slammed for saying that. But I believe it. I have lived it. And I have watched the other states and what they have been able to accomplish."

But Reed also praised Florida for its effort to increase online education, with the university system's current goal of having 40 percent of the credit hours taught online by 2025.

Reed is survived by his wife, Catherine Reed, two children and five grandchildren.