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Education news and notes from Tampa Bay and Florida

Blue Ribbon task force spends the day hammering out a vague vision for higher ed reforms



 Florida’s higher education system should be the best value in the nation, should contribute to the state’s economic success and should be governed with a spirit of collaboration between its leaders.

At least, that’s the idea.

That somewhat nebulous vision emerged Thursday in a day-long series of workshops put on by the Florida Blue Ribbon Task Force, the panel created by Gov. Rick Scott earlier this year with the charge of reforming the state’s higher education system.

It marked a critical point for the seven-person panel, which now has to boil down the many thoughts offered up by dozens of higher education leaders Thursday and in the months preceding it and deliver a list of recommendations to Scott by October.

It won’t be an easy task, particularly given all the different interested parties who have very different priorities. Think: students, parents, taxpayers, lawmakers, universities and the boards that govern them.

“It’s like walking into a room full of hornets nests,” Dale Brill, the panel’s chairman said between workshops, which took place at St. Petersburg College’s Collaborative Labs in Clearwater. “One nest breaks, and you back into a wall and break another one.”

Still, Brill is confident the panel will be able to meet its deadline with clear and meaningful suggestions. The hope is to offer Scott at least three succinct goals, with an extensive business-focused case to back them up.

Scott is, after all, a business-minded man. He created the panel to identify ways to make the state’s higher education systems more efficient — as he vetoed a bill that would have allowed certain top universities to raise tuition.

If universities want to charge more, they’re going to have to show that the extra money would provide students with an extra return on investment, Scott said at the time.

That notion was alive and well Thursday, with discussions about changes to tuition policy focused on tying tuition to performance or outcomes at the state’s dozen public universities. One clear opinion: not every university necessarily has to charge the same amount.

Other ideas included allowing the Florida Board of Governors, which oversees the state university system, to receive a lump sum of funding from the Legislature and decide how to split it up among the universities, rather than the schools getting the money directly from the state budget.

There was a lot of pondering about how much Florida’s higher education is worth. How much money should be invested in it? How much of a share should students pay? How much should the state pay?

An answer never came.

But while the meeting lacked specifics, it wasn’t without entertainment — with somewhat theatrical brainstorming methods lending levity to the wonky policy talks.

A sketch artist stood in the corner of the room most of the day illustrating ideas on a whiteboard.

Someone mentioned funding uncertainty, and he drew a man peeking out from under an umbrella. Someone talked about having a global perspective, and he drew a man looking through a telescope from the tip of the world.

The seminar participants — which included university presidents, legislators, and Florida business leaders — got in on the fun, too.

Their first assignment was to design an imaginary magazine cover for the year 2017. How would Florida’s higher education make the news?

There was no dearth of optimism. Or exclamation points.

“Florida Gets It!” one headline proclaimed. Under it, a clip-art image of two people shaking hands. Above their heads hovered a lightbulb.

The crowded room chuckled. Then they started talking about value and governance and metrics and stakeholder expectations and dozens of other buzz-word-ish concepts.

When the meeting was over, someone asked Brill what he thought. Was he overwhelmed?

“It is daunting,” he said, “in the breadth and the depth of the issues... But that’s the exciting part. If we get this right, we can have an impact on our state.”

[Last modified: Thursday, July 26, 2012 6:42pm]


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