A weekend interview with Michael Long, student member of the Florida Board of Governors
New College sophomore Michael Long jumped into Florida's spotlight in November when, as the student representative to the state Board of Governors, he alone stood up to powerful Sen. JD Alexander's pressure to free USF Polytechnic from the USF umbrella. Since then, he's become a visible advocate for university student issues in a way that past student governors have not, even penning columns on legislation before lawmakers. Long's term on the board expires soon. But he has no plans to stop working on behalf of student matters. He spoke with reporter Jeff Solochek about his advocacy and views on what Florida's higher education system needs for longterm success.
What got you started? Why did you all of a sudden get involved in these political issues?
I appreciate that and am humbled. But I don't know if we could say I've accomplished a lot legislatively. I have spoken out quite a bit and involved myself to a high degree. But accomplishment is kind of a tough word. I really had the opportunity to get involved in statewide politics through my role on the Board of Governors as the student representative for all students in the state of Florida. ... That has put me in a lot of places where I have been asked a lot of questions. ... In many cases I have tried to get out and get involved on the ground level. When USF Polytechnic came up, I spent countless hours driving and traveling and meeting with members of the USF team and the Legislature trying to really understand all the perspectives.
You don't even go to USF. What made you decide to spend a lot of time doing that as opposed to letting others decide?
As a member of the Board of Governors, I felt a very strong obligation to do so. I was voting on whether or not the state would add a 12th university. Such a vote like that, especially in an economic recession, I felt I had to be fully prepared for and knowledgeable about all perspectives. But I guess moreso than that, that particular issue affected students greatly, mainly in the area of degree value. When you as a high school senior or as someone reentering education decide that you are going to invest four to six years and $10,000-$20,000 in an education, you want to be sure there will be an output in the form of job opportunities and respect for your degree. So many students were concerned whether they would have the same degree value if that 12th university were created. As the only student voice on the board, it was my responsibility to make sure people understood that side of the argument.
Were you taken aback by the way you were treated? ... I read the stories about how you spoke your piece and told the truth and you wound up getting politically attacked.
I don't feel like I've been politically attacked. I was more overwhelmed by the response to just a few words, and how that can make such a large ripple in a pond as small as our state. But I don't think I've ever been attacked. People have said some pretty harsh words and there are some interesting bills in the Legislature. But I don't know if I can chalk that up to just the way I spoke out at that November Board of Governors meeting.
You have spoken out since then, and you mentioned that you don't feel like you have accomplished much. Do you find that people have other things in mind and they don't listen to what you say?
I think I have done a great job of involving students in the legislative process. ... But the legislative process is a complex drawn-out process. I do feel like myself and other students who have involved themselves have been heard in the process. We are grossly underrepresented when you compare us to other, larger interest groups. But I do think we're heard. But a lot of members of the Legislature and other decision makers see things differently than we do, because we're coming from an entirely different perspective. We are students right now involved in our education, and consumers of the state university system. The lawmakers are more the providers, so we are going to see things a little differently.
They are talking a lot about increasing tuition, making it so you have to take more virtual courses, changing the types of degrees and all sorts of things to change higher education. I would have thought they would value hearing from the students more? Did you get a sense they were wanting to hear from you?
Unfortunately not. I do believe a lot of the changes that have been proposed have been done so in good faith. But I don't think there is a proper system in place for student collaboration when it comes to statewide and large change in our state educational system. So like I said, I do think those members who are suggesting these ideas do come from a good place. I just don't think full collaboration was there....
You still have two years where you could continue to be an advocate, even if you are not on the Board of Governors. I am wondering what your thoughts are as to how you and others ... might approach the Legislature and the Board of Governors going forward, knowing full well that higher education reform is on the agenda.
Sure. I don't think that position is a requirement for involvement. Fortunately I have been able to maintain a relationship with leaders in higher education. I see myself in the coming years as someone who can contribute to the conversation and hopefully look at things from a different perspective. And by virtue of serving on the board in years past I will have a good understanding of how things work, and that will enable me to work within the process to affect change.
How do you get the students to be more involved and listened to as a group? You know, lawmakers will listen to groups of people if they're loud enough and large enough. I'm wondering how you can turn students into an advocacy group, so when things are being done to the college and university system they get listened to.
Really what it boils down to is building relationships. ... Students who do a better job of building relationships with our higher education leaders will be granted more access and just more opportunities to be involved in the process. As students we always joke about how you have lobbyists who spend 15 to 25 years really learning how to become effective lobbyists and building relationships to effect change. Students are involved in their education for four to six years, and then they're gone. So building those relationships is never an easy thing to do. The way to do it is from an organizational standpoint. So an organization like the Florida Student Association can help foster those relationships with the higher education leaders. That will continue on from student to student. ...But how to make our interest group larger? That is tough. Students need to get out and vote. We need to have more student-friendly voting laws. There are a few bills in the Legislature currently that would enable that. But to be a larger interest group we need to have a larger voting bloc or larger campaign contributions.
As they talk about changing the university system, what would you say are the three things that need to be considered?
... The first thing is to be sure that a person in the state of Florida regardless of their socioeconomic status and background has the opportunity to pursue an education. And not only the opportunity to pursue an education but leading into my second thing, the second priority would be the level of education, the quality. So first and foremost, we need to focus on college affordability and access. And then the quality of our education, which is something I think the state has done a good job of doing. ... The third, I would say the third issue really needs to be creating a state university system that believes and embodies collaboration.
You have 11 state universities in Florida, and potentially a 12th on the way soon with Florida Polytechnic. And each of our universities offers a distinctive approach to learning with a different mission. You have the honors college and the liberal arts focused curriculum at New College. You have the flagship, landmark institution with the University of Florida and their medical school and all the programs they have there. You have the historically black school at Florida A&M. So all of us are unique and different in our own way and offer unique education experiences to the students in our state. Because we are unique and different, it tends to pit us against each other every now and then, and really prevents collaboration. A lot of the universities are very much, I heard a term the other day that I thought was very well put - there's a lot of mission creep. Universities really need to think about what their mission is, and fulfilling that mission. So being open to collaborate with other universities to fill gaps and fulfill needs within our university system. So for example, maybe if we really felt that it is necessary to increase the number of STEM graduates here in the state of Florida, would it not have been more prudent to develop a collaborative program with our research leaders such as UF, USF and UCF to use the systems we already have in place to increase enrollment and graduation of STEM students rather than creating a 12th university?
My last question is related to the money issue. They keep increasing tuition year after year, and yet the revenue doesn't seem to cover the loss in funding that the Legislature takes away. I'm wondering at what point does money become such an issue that students can't afford to come here, or they choose not to come here anymore because the universities can't seem to come up with what they want.
That's why I listed affordability and access as the No. 1 priority of higher ed leaders. The state needs to make education a priority. It needs to make it a priority in the budgeting process, otherwise we are going to start losing access. We are going to start losing students to out-of-state schools. We are going to start seeing a less educated state, because people are going to forego their own college education because they can't afford it. In doing so we have to really focus on making sure our neediest students financially have the resources available to them. So, new and improved financial aid programs, maintaining Bright Futures, and growing tuition at a reasonable and predictable rate. If we are going to move toward the median nationwide level of tuition, we need to do so in a way that both parents and students can plan for. Because a lot of problems that students are having right now is you'll see a 15 percent increase in tuition combined with state financial aid and Bright Futures reductions in a single year, thus increasing the cost of college education anywhere from $1,700 to $2,500, and no one planned for that. If you're already maxed out on student loans, and your parents are unemployed, because we are still in fact in an economic recession, how do you cover that extra $1,700 to $2,500? So we just have to be careful with the decisions we make especially when it comes to financial aid programs for the students who need them the most.
How do you do this, and how do you get others to do it, too - to stand up and spend time talking and thinking about these issues - when you also have to get your degree?
You have to have fun. You have to view it as a learning experience. I have fun going around and talking to different people about issues that really do affect me on a day to day basis as a student. The way I see it, if going around and having conversations and spending time researching statewide issues will have any kind of impact on reducing the likelihood of a tuition increase, and refocusing the state's priorities on education funding, I'm happy to do so and I think any student would be happy to do so.