Florida higher ed's school of hard knocks

“This lawsuit is nothing more than an attempt to get unbridled tuition increases. God help our students if 
they win.”
Senate President Ken Pruitt

“This lawsuit is nothing more than an attempt to get unbridled tuition increases. God help our students if they win.” Senate President Ken Pruitt

"Human history becomes more and more a

race between education and catastrophe."

H.G. Wells, The Outline of History

Fifty years ago, Florida's Legislature declared war on Florida's universities. The Johns Committee investigated Florida A&M professors who supported the 1956 Tallahassee Bus Boycott, claiming they might be communists. At other colleges, students were yanked out of classes on suspicion of homosexuality. English professors were threatened for assigning "trashy and pornographic" books such as The Grapes of Wrath and The Catcher in the Rye. Science professors were branded "unqualified" for teaching evolution.

The Johns Committee is long gone, but in the 21st century your Florida government is still fighting higher education. Just in the past few years, we've seen vicious budget cuts, attempts by the Legislature to pass "academic freedom" bills policing how and what professors profess, and finally a constitutional amendment, approved in 2002 by more than 60 percent of exasperated Floridians, creating a statewide Board of Governors with ultimate authority over public universities. That was supposed to be the end of it.

But this is Florida: We can whip up a power struggle over whether the official state pie should be pecan or Key lime. So placing the Board of Governors (BOG) in the constitution failed to settle the question of who's in charge. Depending on whom you ask, either the BOG sets university tuition or the Legislature does. Either tuition falls under the Legislature's constitutional powers of appropriation, or it's private money, which should be controlled by the universities. As Charlie Reed, chancellor of Florida's university system from 1985-1998, once said, around here, "universities are a political sport."

Former Democratic Sen. Bob Graham, former Republican U.S. Rep. Lou Frey, former FSU president Talbot "Sandy" D'Alemberte, a pack of distinguished Florida educators, and the Board of Governors itself, are currently suing the Legislature over who rules what. Lead attorney Robin Gibson, himself a former chairman of the old Board of Regents, acknowledges that tuition is a central issue, but says that "the real thrust of this suit is to establish the constitutional position of the Board of Governors as a public corporation with full responsibility for the universities."

Piqued, the Florida Senate is hitting back, proposing another constitutional amendment for the 2008 ballot, calling for an elected commissioner of education, while cutting the Board of Governors off at the knees, reducing it from 17 members to eight and completely subjugating it to the Legislature. The citizens may have spoken on university governance but, according to Sen. Lisa Carlton, R-Osprey, sponsor of the amendment, we didn't mean it. Or we didn't understand what we were doing. Or something. Senate President Ken Pruitt asks, "Do Floridians want an unelected board to set tuition? Or do they want their Legislature — a body elected by the people — to set it?"

Tuition at Florida's universities is Third-World low, and many of Florida's lawmakers are flat-out proud of the fact. Last year, USA Today listed 75 state flagship universities: Florida State came 74th; the University of Florida 75th. UF's undergraduate tuition runs about $3,206 per year, one-third of what a year at the University of Michigan costs. By contrast, the universities of Tennessee, Alabama, Arkansas and Georgia charge between $5,000 and $5,900. Those Deep South states are not known for high costs of living or Massachusetts-level taxes. Yet they have better per-student spending levels and better faculty-student ratios. That's not hard: Florida's are worst in the nation.

Challenges to culture

Florida's investment in higher education has been deteriorating for at least a decade. This year's swingeing cuts mean layoffs, downsizing, summer classes canceled, some whole departments shut down. Now, faced with a recession and demands for a better educated population, you'd think that Florida's elected leaders would bolt up out of those leather chairs, hot to improve the state's universities. It's not happening. And the question Floridians should be asking — loudly — is why?

Bob Graham says, "Higher education is a particularly sensitive area of state government because it propagates ideas without regard to political correctness or political expediency. Universities don't produce a tangible product."

He might have added that universities are fertile ground for unpopular ideas, challenges to the culture, sometimes critiques of government itself.

The Legislature's current animus against the universities was most vehemently on display last month when Chancellor Mark Rosenberg appeared before a Senate committee. It wasn't even the higher ed. committee, just K-12, yet both Democrats and Republicans there felt they had a right to treat him as if he'd suggested bombing Disney World. K-12 Committee Chair Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, lectured Rosenberg on the University of Virginia, which other than the fact that it's a public institution and a member of the ACC, has little in common with any Florida institution. Sen. Larcenia Bullard, D-Miami, complained that the Board of Governors never come to see her. When Rosenberg quietly pointed out that she had been one of the first lawmakers he visited after he'd been appointed, another senator accused him of speaking "disrespectfully" to her.

There is no end to legislative brattiness. Lisa Carlton, sponsor of the amendment to gut the BOG, answers Graham's suit thus: "The Legislature has set tuition ever since the board was created. And guess what? We'll set it again in '08."

Ken Pruitt piles on: "This lawsuit is nothing more than an attempt to get unbridled tuition increases. God help our students if they win."

Unlike many of their constituents, neither Carlton nor Pruitt is a product of Florida's public universities. Carlton's BA is from Stetson and her JD from Mercer: both private institutions. Pruitt has a certificate in Water and Wastewater Treatment from Indian River Community College.

Perhaps they don't understand how hard it is to attract the best faculty and graduate students when the Chronicle of Higher Education keeps reporting on Florida's cheap and nasty attitude toward its universities. Or how the disappointment when excellent undergraduates cannot be admitted because the university hasn't enough instructors to teach them. Or when our research institutions lose some of their most promising young professors and most eminent scientists. Florida State alone seen a number of top-notch scholars flee to Ohio State, the University of South Carolina, and Tulane. Even hurricane-ravaged New Orleans is friendlier to higher ed than the Sunshine State.

A Fourth Branch?

The lawsuit filed by Graham, Frey, D'Alemberte and the Board of Governors against the Florida Legislature should settle who sets tuition. The Legislature insists tuition is part of appropriations. Eminent Florida litigator and constitutional expert Dexter Douglass says they're wrong: "The Legislature controls involuntary taxes such as the sales tax. Tuition is private money."

Various critics have warned that giving the BOG the powers they seek would set up a fourth branch of government. Plaintiffs' attorney Robin Gibson denies this: "The board performs a executive function — it is part of the executive branch, with members appointed by the governor."

Who occupies what constitutional real estate is obviously important. More important is what we do to save our struggling institutions. Graham and Gibson present possible remedies in their suit, measures to stop these ugly dog fights over higher education and stanch the universities' wounds. Gibson says they looked to "the best state university systems in the country, the ones which have stood the test of time, most notably Michigan, Minnesota and California." All are run by versions of a Board of Regents, insulated from politics. Gibson points to a statement by the Michigan Supreme Court calling the period when the Michigan Legislature ran the universities "not a success," and contrasting it to the professional, unpoliticized reign of the Michigan Board of Regents, creating "one of the most successful, most complete and best-known institutions of learning in the world."

The California Compact

Graham and Gibson also cite California's innovative model, a deal between the campuses of the University of California and California State University system (now run by former Florida chancellor Charlie Reed), Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and the California Legislature. The "California Compact" ensures stable funding for higher education. Gibson explains that if state tax revenue is down, the universities have the ability, within limits, to raise tuition. In flush times, the universities must lower tuition according to the agreed-upon formula. It means that the universities know they will have funds not merely to survive, but to compete with the best in the world.

The "California Compact" is far-sighted, bipartisan and weirdly sensible. However, Bob Graham warns, "it can only function with an independent entity setting university tuition." If the courts decide that the Legislature sets tuition, it will never get anywhere near the level it needs to be to sustain higher education in this state, let alone improve it. What politician, one eye on the next election, wants to be tagged by an opponent as "raising tuition on your children"?

When Gov. Charlie Crist came into office, he vowed that Florida's education system would be the "gold standard"; House Speaker Marco Rubio insists he wants Florida to have "world-class" institutions. Yet they have no strategy for lifting us up even, say, to No. 40 in the nation — around the level of the University of Alabama — instead of dead last. If the Senate's amendment passes, Florida's universities won't get the funding they need to educate Floridians for the 21st century; worse, the Legislature will be able to micromanage them. What if powerful lawmakers decide they don't want French or evolutionary biology or Marxist literary criticism taught? They could, if they felt like it, reduce higher ed to Jesus, football and accounting.

California, Michigan and other states with flourishing universities invest in them, cherish them, take pride in them — and let them do their jobs independent of political interference. No doubt some of their legislators blow a gasket when students espouse "radical" causes, print dirty words in the school paper or otherwise assault American values. But surely the purpose of education is to present provocative points of view, new ideas, new worlds, challenges to orthodoxy. Surely the purpose of a democracy is to let them prosper.

Diane Roberts holds two degrees from Florida State University and a Ph.D. from Oxford University. She is professor of literature and creative writing at FSU.

Florida higher ed's school of hard knocks 04/19/08 [Last modified: Thursday, April 24, 2008 12:06pm]

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