The precipitous decline of Florida Blue Key 

How a once-powerful UF leadership honorary society resorted to extracting $1,000,000+ in tuition money

By Rey Arcenas

It is an open secret that Florida Blue Key controls the student government of the University of Florida. Over the course of their one hundred year grip on power, they’ve been associated with petty corruption scandals such as throwing out thousands of copies of newspapers with negative headlines, slashing tires, and pouring sugar in their opponents’ gas tanks. Nevertheless, Florida Blue Key celebrates a long list of influential politicians that stretches decades across political lines: Spessard Holland, Fuller Warren, Bob Graham, Lawton Chiles, Buddy MacKay, and Adam Putnam among others. 

Florida Blue Key officially exists as a leadership honorary society at the University of Florida. Founded in 1923, they organized Homecoming activities and what would eventually become Gator Growl, one of the country’s largest student-run pep rallies. 

Unofficially, FBK operates as a shell for a political machine that controls and extracts money from UF’s student government. 

After wrongfully smearing one of their opponents, Charles Grapski, as a child molester in 1995, he successfully sued FBK for defamation. When I interviewed Grapski, he stated plainly, “It’s a secret society hiding under a semi-legitimate guise of a leadership honorary. But everybody knows—it’s not a very good secret, especially because my lawsuit proved forever that, in fact, they are such. They are the System.”

Over the course of his trial, numerous witnesses and insiders confirmed FBK’s illicit activities. In an affidavit, an FBK member admitted, “I am aware that FBK substantially participates in the election of Florida Student Government officers through the operation of the FBK group system.” 

The FBK group system emerged over the course of the twentieth century. In the group system, Greek houses split into fluid factions, or groups, that competed for power within FBK. The alignments of each house within a group often changed from year to year, allowing for limited competition within their relative monopoly of power.

After Grapski’s successful lawsuit and the loss of the student body presidency in 2004, Florida Blue Key reorganized its political machine into a more stable arrangement: the System. Rather than the fluid (and unstable) alignment of Greek houses into groups, houses divided into three rigid blocs — political, social, or third bloc — represented by bloc leaders. 

Additionally, they incorporated non-Greeks into the political machine with representatives from multicultural organizations (called “the communities”) to maintain the appearance of racial diversity within an otherwise white-dominated power structure.

Bloc leaders and representatives of the communities meet behind closed doors to negotiate the spoils of student government. The communities typically receive the vice presidency and treasurer position while specific houses “own” agencies such as Theta Chi controlling Student Government Productions or Alpha Epsilon Pi controlling ACCENT Speakers. After negotiating internally, the System presents a unified front during election season, defeating their opponents by coercing votes from Greek life to ensure a steady bloc vote.

This post-2004 reorganization of the System ensured electoral domination; since then, the System has lost only one student government presidential election. However, the internal results have been disastrous. The rigid and deal-driven bloc system removed the already limited meritocracy and competition that existed within FBK’s group system, leading to a death spiral of nepotism. 

In former decades, the FBK-run Gator Growl pep rally commanded national respect. 

In 2002, attendance was 60,000. Nepotism and a decline in leadership quality, however, led to attendance shrinking to 26,000 by 2011. 

In the early 2010s, FBK insiders admitted they were bleeding money: “Blue Key has degenerated because it has become a business and it wants more members. Gator Growl loses hundreds of thousands of dollars every year, and Blue Key is on its way to going bankrupt.”

What was this prestigious leadership honorary society’s solution to losing money from running its own event poorly? Extracting student tuition dollars to bail itself out.

In 2011 Student Government Productions “stepped in” and offered to pay $71,000 dollars from student tuition funds for Gator Growl artists. Since then, SGP has been paying hundreds of thousands of dollars every year for an event produced by Florida Blue Key. 

The money sent by SGP to FBK cannot be publicly scrutinized. When submitting public record requests concerning contracts of Gator Growl artists, UF simply responds, “You need to reach out to the President of Florida Blue Key … Florida Blue Key handles Gator Growl and Homecoming, not Student Government.”

Even when not indirectly extracting tuition dollars via SGP, FBK takes money directly from UF’s student government to subsidize Gator Growl. For example, in 2005, FBK received $140,000 in tuition funds to lower the cost of Gator Growl tickets. Compiling publicly available statements and news articles, the amount of money taken by FBK from student tuition dollars amounts to $1,271,000 in the last two decades. 

This count is likely an underestimate because, starting in 2018, FBK stopped commenting publicly on how much money it received from student tuition to subsidize Gator Growl. 

Even after extracting over a million dollars of student tuition money, FBK’s fortunes have not reversed. 

In 2022, attendance dropped to 7,000. FBK’s publicly available tax records also paint a sobering picture; in two of the last six fiscal years, they’ve been net negative on income from Homecoming/Gator Growl. 

In the fiscal year ending June 2020 their net income from Homecoming/Gator Growl was –$103,277 and in the fiscal year ending June 2019 it was –$16,244. 

Despite taking hundreds of thousands of dollars in student tuition money every year, FBK still struggles to make any money from Homecoming/Gator Growl and, in fact, sometimes loses money!

Florida Blue Key controls UF’s student government and has developed a sophisticated political machine to perpetuate its control. Nevertheless, the internal corruption and nepotistic practices that characterize FBK’s reorganization of its political machine post-2004 has also led to an internal financial degeneration. 

To stay afloat, it has resorted to leveraging its control over student government to extract hundreds of thousands of dollars in student tuition money for its events. The System is not merely dying, but actively on life support. 

As Grapski told me, “Instead of teaching the future leaders of America and Florida who could actually bring about reforms to the country and the state, we are teaching corruption at the University of Florida and condoning it.” 

Rey Arcenas is a 3rd year UF History and Women’s Studies student and a recipient of the Florida Academic Top Scholar award.

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