Wednesday, January 17, 2018
Education

Gov. Scott's interest in university system crosses line, some say

TALLAHASSEE — Seeking to offset an automatic 1.7 percent tuition increase, Gov. Rick Scott is meeting with university leaders one by one and lobbying them to cut tuition rates by an equal amount next year.

It's not working.

The University of Florida and Florida State University boards of trustees voted Friday to reject the governor's request. Other university leaders have signaled they could do the same this week. And some, like the University of South Florida, want guidance from the state Board of Governors before making a decision.

It's a big loss for Scott, who had all but promised no tuition increases next year and who directly or indirectly appoints a majority of university trustees. University officials, supported by House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, say they need additional revenues to begin to compensate for the losses generated by the downturn in the economy and state budget cuts.

"No one likes to raise tuition, but I think the essence for us as a governing board is to make sure we use these dollars wisely, make sure that we deliver value," said FSU trustee Ed Burr.

Scott has called raising tuition a tax increase — even though he approved an 8 percent tuition increase in 2011 — and has been making his case to anyone who will listen. University of West Florida president Judy Bense said she didn't feel pressured during a meeting with Scott last week, though she didn't make any promises.

Bense explained to Scott that UWF lost $30 million in state funding since 2007. Tuition increases helped, but did not do enough to plug gaps in the $85 million budget. UWF would lose about $390,000 by rejecting the automatic 1.7 percent tuition increase.

"It probably means four or five faculty positions, it could mean advisers, it could mean many people that we can't hire or that we might have to let go," Bense said.

Bense's board meets today, as does the board at the University of North Florida. Both schools have included the small tuition increase in their preliminary budgets.

"The fact that the governor has positions on things is fine," Bense said. "But at the end of the day my paycheck and my responsibility is to run this university."

Scott criticized UF and FSU for approving the tuition increase last week and praised USF for "holding the line on tuition." But he was wrong in assuming USF has taken his side.

If the state Board of Governors, which oversees the university system, says schools can't legally reject the inflation adjustment, USF's board will likely amend its budget to include the additional $1.5 million, officials there said.

This is the first year an automatic inflation adjustment, passed in 2007, is being triggered because larger tuition increases had been written into previous budgets or were approved by the state's Board of Governors.

Even after receiving phone calls from Scott, FSU's board voted to include the 1.7 percent tuition hike in its budget — earmarking half of the $1.3 million increase for financial aid.

UF trustees will use the additional $1.4 million for scholarships and building maintenance, officials there said.

"For many students, an increase in tuition means an increase in the debt burden they will carry," Scott said, responding to the news in a statement. "This increase comes at a time when interest rates on student loans are scheduled to double next month."

Scott's tone strikes some as overly political and borderline meddling.

State laws include automatic increases in a host of other areas — from highway tolls, to gas taxes, to water permit fees — but Scott has not campaigned to keep those fees flat.

At the same time, Scott's 2014 Let's Get to Work re-election committee is using the tuition fight as a fundraising tool, the Palm Beach Post reported.

"Join us in fighting the newest tax increase on Florida families — rising tuition," read an email blast, which asked for a contribution of at least $10.

"It feels honestly like it is politically motivated and it has more to do with his re-election campaign than it does providing opportunities for higher education in Florida," said Rep. Joe Saunders, D-Orlando, whose district includes the University of Central Florida.

Weatherford and Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, have told universities that they cannot legally reject the 1.7 percent tuition increase. But they have not publicly said whether they agree with Scott's request to keep tuition and fees flat even if it means rolling back some of last year's tuition increases.

Others are more blunt: They wish Scott would butt out.

Former FSU president Talbot "Sandy" D'Alemberte said he worked closely with the governors in office during his tenure: Lawton Chiles and Jeb Bush. He doesn't remember having the kinds of meetings that Scott is now having with university presidents, which he believes borders on micromanagement.

"In terms of setting fees and the extent of operating the university, I never heard from a governor and I would have thought it sort of strange if I had been called," D'Alemberte said.

Before Scott vetoed a 3 percent tuition increase last month, he asked university presidents to sign a letter saying they did not want more tuition revenue. An early draft, suggested by the governor's office, specifically mentioned the inflation adjustment as a source of revenue they would reject.

The presidents collectively balked at Scott's request.

"This is not a decision that was meant to be made at the governor's level," D'Alemberte said.

Charlie Reed, a former state university system chancellor, said that public universities depend on a mix of tuition, state support and private donations and that Scott should trust the people he appointed.

"They should be free to make the very best judgments that they can," Reed said.

Contact Tia Mitchell at [email protected]

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