By BRENT KALLESTAD
Published: Monday, June 11, 2012 at 6:29 p.m.
Two veteran faculty members cautioned a newly formed task force on Monday against changing the state’s higher education system simply because a businessman – in this case, Gov. Rick Scott – believes it needs to show more value.
Scott has been at odds with state university officials and faculty on issues ranging from tuition to course offerings and tenure. The Republican has made job creation the centerpiece of his campaign and administration and appointed the task force last month to look at making Florida’s higher education system more efficient, transparent and accountable.
“The idea that you can reduce all values to economic value is not only not silly, it’s dangerous,” said Roy Weatherford, professor emeritus of philosophy at the University of South Florida. “The idea that the kind of management that works to maximize profits is the same kind of management that would maximize knowledge – that’s just false.”
Tom Auxter, a University of Florida professor and president of the United Faculty of Florida, warned the board about tinkering with the tenure system.
“The fastest way to change us into a regional university is to abolish tenure,” Auxter said. “You invest in your faculty, you develop your faculty.”
Auxter told the panel that Florida’s economy depends too greatly on housing development construction, tourism and agriculture, all vulnerable in recessionary times.
“The way to get out of Florida’s economic mess is precisely through the university system,” Auxter said. “North Carolina proved that this is the way to do it. You can spawn new and innovative ways in order to create industry and create economic activity in the state instead of just those three that we’ve been depending on.”
Scott bucked university officials and lawmakers earlier this spring by vetoing a bill that would have let the state’s top two research schools charge higher tuition rates to pay for quality improvements. He also signed a bill immediately creating Florida Polytechnic University out of the University of South Florida’s Lakeland branch instead of adopting a step-by-step process approved by the Board of Governors.
“In general, when you put non-academics in charge of things, it becomes non-academic,” Weatherford said. “If you have to prove the value of it before you do it, how can you prove it when you don’t know what it is?”
The panel also heard from some familiar voices.
State University System Chancellor Frank Brogan said that recent cuts in state support dramatically exceeds what the schools are able to make up financially, even if they raise tuition by the maximum 15 percent allowed by law. He said the state’s public universities would raise roughly $100 million if all boosted their tuition by the 15 percent maximum. Lawmakers have slashed spending for higher education by roughly $300 million in recent years.
And Brogan noted that Florida’s existing 11 public universities are growing at a rate of 2 percent to 3 percent annually.
State economist Amy Baker told the panel that Florida is rapidly becoming more elderly and diverse with Hispanic, African-American and Asian populations rapidly becoming a larger part of the state’s fabric.
Baker told the task force that the state’s elderly population will be increasing, as well, with baby boomers now entering into retirement. The panel is trying to develop strategies to help prepare the state’s public universities for the changing requirements to ensure Florida can once again become a vibrant state economically.
Baker said the state’s economic situation is improving, albeit slowly, but noted that Florida’s tax structure that is largely dependent on taxing goods will be stressed by the increased number of retiring baby boomers who have less of a need to buy big-ticket items.
“Things are much better than they were, but the recovery is still gradual,” she said.