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Fears of brain drain raise Florida universities' budget

JACKSONVILLE — The board that oversees Florida's university system on Thursday unanimously approved a $3.7-billion budget proposal for the 2009-10 fiscal year, a $380-million increase over this year's budget.

Describing the plan as "bare bones" for the second year in a row, board members emphasized the need to fund student safety, student access and quality faculty members despite predictions that the state could see a $1.5-billion shortfall in revenue this fiscal year.

High on the list of must-haves: $65.4-million earmarked for faculty salary increases, which board chairwoman Sheila McDevitt said is crucial to stopping a so-called brain drain that has the potential to undermine Florida's economy.

"Retention of faculty and attraction of new talent is absolutely critical," McDevitt said. "That's the No. 1 priority other than keeping the doors open."

The urgency comes as faculty members at Florida's 11 universities, who have received raises just two of the last three years, are becoming increasingly vulnerable to offers from schools outside the state.

"The problem is," board member Judith Solano said, "we're just not providing them with the level of support they need so they can tell the poachers 'no.' "

While all of the state's universities are feeling the pinch to some degree, the University of South Florida is losing faculty members at a rate three times as high as in previous years, USF provost Ralph Wilcox said. Most recently, the school lost internationally renowned robotics researcher Robin Murphy, who was lured away by Texas A&M University.

USF "is eager to put more money in the pockets" of its faculty members, Wilcox said, and will explore initiatives similar to one announced last month by University of Florida president Bernie Machen. That plan will set aside more than $11-million in tuition revenue for faculty merit raises and staffer cost-of-living increases beginning in September.

"If we want to compete regionally and nationally, we're going to have to take some significant action both to stem the brain drain and to stimulate brain gain," Wilcox said, speaking of the university system.

Also included in the proposed budget, which will come before the Legislature in the spring, is more than $30-million to offset higher utility costs. The increases vary from school to school — $3.4-million at USF, $4.5-million at UF — but on average are expected to be 20 percent.

Additional funding, if it comes at all, would apply to energy costs incurred in the 2009-10 fiscal year, said state university system spokesman Bill Edmonds. "The increases this year," Edmonds said, "they'll just have to eat."

Donna Winchester can be reached at winchester@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8413.

>>Fast facts

Proposed budget highlights

$65-million to raise faculty salaries, stemming "brain drain" to schools in other states

$32-million to meet increased utility costs, on average 20 percent higher at each university

$20-million to facilitate access for community college transfers

$19-million to replace nonrecurring lottery funds provided during 2008-09 for university salaries and campus operations

$14-million to continue funding campus safety and emergency preparedness initiatives

$10-million to add more than 1.5-million square feet in construction already approved by the Legislature

Fears of brain drain raise Florida universities' budget 08/07/08 [Last modified: Friday, August 8, 2008 2:28pm]
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