State/National News

Scott’s Approach to Higher Ed Reform Challenged

By Lloyd Dunkelberger
Tallahassee bureau
Published: Saturday, June 23, 2012 at 9:49 p.m.

TALLAHASSEE — Gov. Rick Scott’s influence over Florida’s state colleges and universities is growing as more of his appointees begin to dominate the boards that run those schools.

But as Scott’s newly appointed trustees clash with State College of Florida President Lars Hafner in Manatee County, some question whether Scott’s effort to revamp higher education, bringing more business-like practices to the system, will cause more chaos than good.

Scott said he wants an affordable higher-education system that produces students capable of finding high-paying jobs in a struggling economy. But his critics fear that his efforts may disrupt a system by taking on issues such as eliminating tenure for professors and trying to measure school performance more like a business than an academic institution.

Tom Auxter, president of the United Faculty of Florida, the union that represents some 8,000 employees in the university and state college systems, said difficulties arise when college or university board members with experience are replaced with those less familiar with the complexities of the higher education system.

Auxter, a philosophy professor at the University of Florida, said it happened at his school when Scott blocked the reappointment of UF Board of Trustees Chairman Carlos Alfonso.

Auxter said Alfonso, originally appointed by Gov. Jeb Bush, had “evolved into somebody who really understands the university — and then all of a sudden he’s given notice that he will not be on the board.”
“If what’s happening is that you take people who have been there long enough to know the consequences of what they’re doing and replace them with people who just have convictions but don’t have that much background — what that means is you have to start all over again from the very beginning making sure they understand the full dimensions of the problems before they make decisions,” Auxter said, adding he was not directly familiar with the controversy at SCF, which used to be Manatee Community College based in Bradenton.

Aside from the controversy over the school president, the SCF trustees have also signaled their support for limiting “continuing contracts” for college professors — a form of job protection that is similar to tenure.

It echoes efforts by the state Board of Education, which is appointed by Scott and is now considering statewide changes in its rule governing continuing contracts for all 28 state colleges.

“In general I do see a trend to dismantle tenure,” said state Rep. Michelle Rehwinkle Vasilinda, D-Tallahassee. “And I really think that is ill-advised.”

Rehwinkle Vasilinda, a lawyer and professor at Tallahassee Community College, said eliminating tenure would threaten “academic freedom” and harm the higher education system.

“Here is what you don’t want in colleges and universities: to in any way stifle or chill the conversation, discussion or the writing of academics,” she said.

Scott’s influence over the state’s higher education will continue to grow. His appointees now make up a majority on five of the 28 boards, with several more having four of nine members appointed by Scott.

Irritated by the Board of Governor’s decision to sharply raise tuition at Florida’s universities this week, Scott outlined his goal: “It is my priority to keep the cost of living low for Floridians and have an education system that produces the most competitive, highly skilled workforce in the world. And I expect our universities and the Board of Governors to seek those same goals.”

Scott has indicated his preference to achieve that goal at both colleges and universities by considering some of the changes Texas made in its higher education system — which has set performance standards for schools and professors based on measures such as attracting research dollars and student surveys.

The ideas are based on the “Seven Breakthrough Solutions” policy paper created by Texas businessman Jeff Sandefer.

Scott began pushing last year to shift more higher education funding to science, technology, engineering and math departments, the so-called “STEM” disciplines.

“If I’m going to take money from a citizen to put into education, then I’m going to take that money to create jobs,” he has said, crediting Texas governor Rick Perry with steering him toward revamping higher education. “So I want that money to go to degrees where people can get jobs in this state.”

Auxter said he has concerns about imposing some type of “business model” for the higher education system that sets “a narrow range of cost-benefit” measures, without taking into account the institutions’ complexity.

He said the schools cannot be evaluated on the basis of “how many units can you put out at how cheap of a price.”

“You’re not really giving students the same thing at a cheaper price,” Auxter said. “You’re actually taking down the quality of what they are getting.”

Auxter said using the Texas model has the potential for turning schools into “diploma mills.”
It could make Florida schools less attractive to top faculty. For instance, the Texas plan rewards professors for securing research grants but pays them an annual bonus rather than increasing their base salary.

The Texas system relies heavily on student surveys — which Auxter likened to “customer satisfaction” evaluations used by businesses. UF and other Florida schools use student surveys in evaluating teachers but also supplement it with other measures, such as evaluations from peers.

Auxter also opposed eliminating continuing contracts for college professors, testifying at a state Department of Education hearing earlier this month in Jacksonville where a proposed rule was presented.

He said it would be a mistake to replace permanent professors with temporary staff, although it might be cheaper for the system.

“It’s very important to have ongoing, stable faculty that students can depend on,” he said.
The original rule is now being revised and will be subject to another public hearing. A similar effort to limit tenure at the state universities has not been considered.

Scott has appointed a special task force to review potential changes to higher education, and the group is expected to begin making recommendations in the next few months. The issue is expected to be a priority in the next legislative session, with strong support from incoming Senate President Don Gaetz.