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Board approves sweeping new plan for state university system

TAMPA — In the next 13 years, the state university system should increase the number of degrees it awards by almost 70 percent, have at least five of its 11 universities ranked in the top 50 nationally, and grow its adult-student enrollment and online courses.

Those are just some of the goals outlined in the new strategic plan for the Florida Board of Governors. With a heavy focus on fields in science, technology, engineering and math — STEM, as the buzzword goes — the plan aims to better position the university system as an economic driver.

It's an idea that has been in the spotlight lately thanks to Gov. Rick Scott's new STEM-heavy jobs agenda.

Indeed, the plan was included in a letter to Scott by state university system Chancellor Frank Brogan, responding to a lengthy information request Scott sent to the universities last month. It is the product of more than a year's worth of work.

"What his conversation does," Brogan said of Scott last week, "is make sure we don't lose that focus."

Frank Martin, chairman of the board committee that put the plan together, called the final product "nothing short of extraordinary."

Some highlights:

Degrees should be targeted to serve both student and workforce demands, academic research should breed moneymaking commercialization, and there should be more collaboration between universities and businesses.

Bachelor's degrees in STEM fields should increase from about 18 percent of the total degrees granted to 25 percent by 2025. Graduate degrees in those areas should move from 21 percent of the total to 35 percent.

Universities should broaden the way they educate students, through online courses, digital technologies and interdisciplinary collaboration.

Graduates should be prepared to compete and excel in a "global society."

All that while continuing to deal with a major bummer: a 20 percent drop in state funding over two decades that's not likely to get any better any time soon.

Because of that, the plan says, state leaders must find new ways to support higher education. In the past few years, that burden has increasingly fallen to students, through tuition increases.

In the future, the plan says, there needs to be a more predictable enrollment-growth funding formula and increased financial aid.

After all, demand for higher education access is only going to grow, the plan says.

Though Scott's aggressive ideas for education reform have rubbed some the wrong way, particularly after he said the state doesn't need a whole lot more anthropologists, Brogan and the board have praised the governor for his interest.

"Some may worry about some of the comments he makes, some of the strong positions about different degree programs we offer," said board chairwoman Ava Parker at the Board of Governors meeting this month when the board approved the strategic plan. "Don't cringe. Say, 'That's great, Gov. Scott, that you're having that conversation.'

"The more the governor voices those opinions, the more important our jobs become."

Somewhat ironically, the board finally approved the road map at one of its most-watched meetings ever, in Boca Raton a couple of weeks ago. But it was a move that got little attention thanks to the gorilla in the room: the University of South Florida Polytechnic's bid to become independent, which the board delayed.

"This is a major milestone that has been somewhat eclipsed by a few other major issues," Board of Governors spokeswoman Kelly Layman said of the new plan. "But the fact remains: Floridians need to know that the Board of Governors landed a compelling product, and on schedule. … We have raised the bar on ourselves."

Times staff writer Katie Sanders contributed to this report. Kim Wilmath can be reached at kwilmath@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3337.

Board approves sweeping new plan for state university system 11/24/11 [Last modified: Thursday, November 24, 2011 7:24pm]
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