The Graduate

After ten years as city manager, Cesar Odio is still catching flak about his college education. Give the guy a break. Better yet, give him a diploma.

Odio was able to graduate on time only after his principal teacher uncovered a long-lost passing grade from one of his classes. That same professor, who refers to Odio as his "long-time good friend," has also enjoyed Miami political connections strong enough to win him more than two million dollars in city grants since 1982.

The college degree: In its unrefined genesis it was not much more than what a Lexus or a BMW might be today -- something to separate elite social sophisticates from the mass of no-class blockheads. "The aristocracies decided they wanted to be quote-unquote educated," explains Lynn Buscaglia, assistant director of career planning and placement at the University of Miami. "They imposed education on each other as almost a status symbol. If you didn't know how to talk to these people on their level, then you weren't worthy."

These days, with aristocracies on the downswing, a college degree serves a similar, if less rarefied, purpose. The bachelor's degree has become a requirement for almost all levels of employment above menial labor (and journalism). "You need a degree to grab those good jobs," says Buscaglia. "In this day and age, when screening for jobs among applicants is so difficult, that is one of the screening elements: degree or no degree. If you don't have a degree, you go in the big stack. You don't get the job."

Except in Miami. To manage America's fourth poorest metropolis -- with its volatile mixture of wealth and poverty, skyscrapers and slums, and its dizzyingly polyglot population -- you don't need a college degree. You don't need any education at all, really. You need only "ten years of highly responsible administrative experience, eight of which must be at a department director level," according to the manager's job specifications on file in the city's department of personnel management. For anyone lacking ten full years of responsible experience, an equivalent combination of education and experience will suffice.

Sergio Pereira, the city manager who preceded Cesar Odio, didn't have a college degree but he still got the job. His 1985 appointment was sort of a scandal, though. City commissioners had hired a search firm, Korn/Ferry International, to assess the candidates vying for the vacant city manager's position. Korn/Ferry later stunned the commission by withdrawing odds-on favorite Pereira from its list of qualified applicants. Pereira, at the time an assistant county manager, allegedly told the consultants that he had graduated from Montclair State College in New Jersey and that he had earned a master's degree from the University of Utah. The firm made a few calls, discovered that no diplomas had been awarded, and denied Pereira's eligibility on the basis of willful misrepresentation.

City commissioners overcame their shock long enough to give Pereira a chance to explain himself -- then they completely bought his story. It turned out that Pereira, on his application for county employment, did not state that he had graduated from Montclair State College, only that he had attended the school for four years. Similar story regarding the University of Utah. But even though the search firm insisted that Pereira had spoken of a degree, he was cleared of lying because he had never claimed in writing to have the degree. "[It is] a thin excuse but valid," ventured Maurice Ferre, who was mayor at the time. "In our American vernacular, you have to prove him guilty. The question is not whether he lied, but whether he cut corners. At worst, maybe he mistakenly decided to look the other way. That's a problem. He said he didn't, so I'll take that."

Pereira stayed at the city for just eight months before ascending to the more prestigious county manager's position. Cesar Odio was his commission-chosen successor. Son of the owner of a prominent Cuban trucking company, Odio came into office with his own inaccurate resume. When he was hired as an assistant city manager in 1980, Odio did not mention his presidency of a failed trucking company. Nor was he truthful when he claimed to be part-owner of a Miami sand company he merely presided over. Odio sidestepped the discrepancies when they were discovered by reporters, characterizing them as "unintentional oversights."

Fortunately, there was no disputing his college credentials. On the resume he submitted when he first landed a city job, Odio claimed to have a bachelor of science degree from La Universidad de Santo Tomas de Villanueva in Havana, Cuba. The resume stated that he studied at the suburban Catholic college from 1956 until 1959. A lifelong learner, Odio went back to school soon after starting with the city, and on April 25, 1982, he pocketed a sheepskin from Florida Memorial College. That bachelor's degree, awarded in public administration, apparently involved taking two uninterrupted years of night and weekend classes -- an accelerated course of study made possible by a whopping 82 credits applied from Villanueva and, he stresses, many, many late nights.

"I studied," the city manager says today, his face twisting in exaggerated pain to demonstrate just how hard he studied. "I used to do all the homework. Oh, I did all the homework. It was right in the middle of the Mariel boatlift and I had to study at night. It was very hard work. And the thing is, I didn't need a degree! I had said I wanted to go to college here in Florida so I could have a piece of paper. Only afterward did I find out that I had a degree in Cuba. I didn't even need to go to Florida Memorial College."

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