When the presidents of Florida's 11 universities convene this week, it's a good bet that one subject will dominate:
Money. Or, more specifically, the lack of it.
The meeting is supposed to be about making Florida's public universities better, more innovative and more distinctive. Over three days in Orlando, each of the institutions will submit "work-plans" outlining their visions and goals to the Florida Board of Governors with the intent of improving the system as a whole.
But for all its optimism, this year's exercise will likely be more about universities making cases for new tuition increases as they prepare to absorb hefty budget cuts for the fifth year in a row.
The sell won't be an easy one.
Gov. Rick Scott, who is expected to kick off the meeting at a luncheon today, has said he opposes tuition increases.
"We cannot continue to raise tuition constantly on the backs of our families," Scott said a few weeks ago, the same day the University of Florida's Board of Trustees voted to seek a 9 percent tuition increase — significantly below the maximum.
That puts the Board of Governors in an awkward position.
While state lawmakers cut $300 million from the state university system's budget this year, they did not approve any base tuition increases, leaving it up to universities to seek increases up to a full 15 percent cap.
So if universities don't raise tuition, or raise it less than that maximum, they'll be short-changing themselves even more.
That's exactly what UF, widely regarded as Florida's flagship, did this month, in a surprising vote to request the 9 percent. If the bar for increases was high, that news moved it up a notch.
Indeed, Frank Brogan, state university system chancellor, called it the "shot heard 'round the world."
A week later, the University of South Florida's trustees, which previously indicated they would seek the full 15 percent, voted to request a raise of just 11 percent.
"This year it's going to be different," said USF President Judy Genshaft.
The other nine universities have said they'll seek the full 15 percent.
Why not just leave tuition where it is?
The universities say they can't afford it.
Over the past few years, as state funding has dropped by hundreds of millions of dollars, universities have had to use tuition increases intended for academic enhancement to fill the gap. But tuition hasn't risen at the same rate as budgets have been cut, so the schools are actually worse off.
Now they're talking about suspending instruction at parts of their campuses and dipping deeply into reserve accounts.
Even while Florida's tuition remains among the cheapest in the nation, some question the wisdom of making students pay more while giving them less.
"It's a difficult balance between affordability, access and quality," USF Provost Ralph Wilcox said at last week's trustees meeting. "You can't have it all."
Information from the Gainesville Sun was used in this report. Kim Wilmath can be reached at [email protected] or 813-226-3337.