Government and academia have a complex, often bitter, always unequal relationship.
Politicians value respect for authority; academics like to question authority. Politicians want the intellectual cachet they think association with a university brings; universities want the money that politicians control. When Florida State University's Myron Rolle became a Rhodes scholar or the Gators won the football national championship, legislators happily wrapped themselves in the college colors.
When there's a bust-up over teaching evolution or some professor wants to pursue research in Cuba, the Legislature pitches a collective hissy fit and tries to show the eggheads who's boss.
Tension between the corridors of power and the ivory tower goes way back: In 399 B.C. the ruling party of Athens accused Socrates of corrupting his pupils and introducing new gods. They didn't just deny him tenure, they forced him to drink hemlock. A little more recently (in the early 1970s) Sen. Dempsey Barron went apoplectic when FSU's Center for Participant Education offered a class called "How to Make a Revolution." In 2001 then-Education Commissioner Charlie Crist threatened to withhold state funding when students at Florida Atlantic wanted to stage Terrence McNally's play Corpus Christi, which portrayed Jesus as gay.
Things have only gotten worse. "Florida has one of the most dysfunctional relationships between education leaders and the Legislature," says Paul Fain, a reporter for the Chronicle of Higher Education. "Legislative leaders are not friends to the universities."
In the 1970s and 1980s, the state began investing serious money in higher education. It paid off: Florida's universities expanded and climbed in national academic rankings. There was a sense that everybody — taxpayers, government, business — had a stake in better-quality professors and students, and better facilities. No longer. Bob Graham, the former U.S. senator and governor who founded the Graham Center for Public Service at the University of Florida, points out that term limits and "lack of a long-term vision or willingness to place statewide interests over parochial concerns" have weakened ties between the state Capitol and state colleges.
Some legislators are positively hostile. Others see colleges and universities as private fiefdoms, resume-fatteners or sources of supplemental income. During the 2009 session, the House was hell-bent on gutting the higher education budget, proposing a debilitating 25 percent reduction. The Senate's plan was less vicious, and in the end, higher ed took about a 10 percent hit.
Even with the federal stimulus money, which runs out in 2011, colleges and universities will be laying off faculty and staff, shutting down programs and turning away students. Still, institutional starvation doesn't keep Florida politicians from feeding at the increasingly meager Florida college trough. By now, everyone knows about Ray Sansom, the former House speaker who didn't exactly become the poster boy for legislative probity with his $110,000 part-time job at Northwest Florida State College and the millions in state funds he slipped NWFSC for an aircraft hangar disguised as an educational facility. The hangar was, of course, a favor for developer Jay Odom, a big-time Republican donor.
Sansom, Odom and NWFSC president Bob Richburg have now been charged with various types of felonious misconduct. But their very public fall hasn't noticeably affected Florida's flourishing — and mostly quite legal — patronage culture. Legislators still get nice college jobs, often at higher-than-average salaries. Back in December, the St. Petersburg Times identified 18 current and recently retired lawmakers working in higher ed, though to be fair, not all of them have Sansom's cavalier attitude about pocketing money from an already-strapped education budget. Rep. Anitere Flores, R-Miami, for example, directs Florida International University's community and civic partnership program, but does not take her university salary when she's in Tallahassee.
Rep. Marti Coley, R-Marianna, on the other hand, had no problem accepting a 33 percent raise from the president of Chipola College, even though she voted to cut education money. She currently makes $60,000 as the "special assistant for business and community affairs" at Chipola, a position which was never advertised. Former House speaker and U.S. Senate candidate Marco Rubio gets $69,000 from his part-time post at FIU's Metropolitan Center. As a legislative leader he steered millions to FIU's new medical school. At the same time, he presided over deep reductions in funding for the rest of Florida's universities.
Sen. Evelyn Lynn, R-Ormond Beach, helped get the money for an FSU literacy outreach center in Daytona Beach: She's chair of the Higher Ed Appropriations Committee, after all. FSU then hired her to run it, forking out $2,300 a week. When the lavish level of her compensation hit the press, Lynn relinquished her salary and offered to work for free.
Sen. Mike Haridopolos got himself a nice gig at UF, teaching courses on the legislative process and 21st century politics during the fall, and helping to place interns in legislative or lobbyists' offices during the session. On the face of it, this seems like a fine idea: Haridopolos is a rising star in the Republican Party, on track to become state Senate president in 2010. But he's making $75,000 — far more than untenured faculty at UF usually get, more than most full professors with several scholarly books in history or political science. His peer-reviewed publications are, to put it charitably, thin. He has no Ph.D.
Haridopolos asserts that he's worth it. He's had more than a decade's experience teaching at Brevard Community College: "This is what I do for a living." He says it's good to have a politics practitioner in an academic setting, someone with "hands-on experience." Besides, he says, he's working on his Ph.D. in history at FSU and expects to be finished by this December.
This is news to Neil Jumonville, incoming chair of the FSU history department. "I haven't heard from Mike Haridopolos for five years."
Haridopolos was evidently admitted to work toward his doctorate in 2004 (though FSU's graduate admissions office has no record of him), with Jumonville as his dissertation director. But he doesn't seem to have made any progress toward fulfilling the degree requirements, which include enrolling for comprehensive exams ("comps") and producing a prospectus. Jumonville sent Haridopolos a reading list as preparation for his comps in 2004 and that's the last contact he had with the senator.
While Jumonville remains interested in Haridopolos' research topic — the history of the Republican Party in Florida — he says that at this point Haridopolos "seems like a fictitious student." As for Haridopolos' finishing his doctorate this year, Jumonville says, "That's ridiculous. We haven't talked about a single book on his reading list, we haven't seen a prospectus from him. We wouldn't really consider him a part of our program."
Overly optimistic representations of an academic career aside, there's something a little unseemly about the people who dole out money for higher education taking some of that money for themselves. Not that some former legislators haven't made a great success of subsequent academic careers. Talbot "Sandy" D'Alemberte represented Dade County in the Legislature from 1966 to 1972, presided over the American Bar Association, and later became president of FSU. Former Speaker of the House of Representatives Jon Mills became dean of the UF law school in 1999; another former speaker, T.K. Wetherell, succeeded D'Alemberte as FSU's president in 2002 (he has recently announced his retirement), while former Lt. Gov. Frank Brogan is president of FAU. Bob Graham, with a 40-year career in public service, is now heavily involved in the center that bears his name at UF.
Perhaps not surprisingly, some of these politicos-turned-professors are critical of both government and the body which is supposed to run higher education. Sandy D'Alemberte, teaching law at FSU, says there's "almost no leadership." Bob Graham concurs: "Where is the Board of Governors? There is no functioning entity to rationalize relations between the Legislature and the universities. The Board of Governors was supposed to provide this, but due to passivity and opposition in the governor's office, the BoG has not taken on this central responsibility."
Jack E. Davis, a professor of history at UF, says, "A state with a quality, properly funded state education system is a state with vision. I'm not even talking about well-funded education, just properly funded education, which I don't think we have in Florida."
Legislators care about getting elected the next time, and they know there aren't a lot of votes in higher education. Sandy D'Alemberte says Florida "should aspire to be like North Carolina: a low tuition, high state support state."
North Carolina's sustained investment in its public colleges and universities has made it a leader in what Bob Graham calls the "postindustrial, information-intellectual economy." But then, North Carolina has had at least a few state leaders able to explain to taxpayers that universities are an engine for prosperity.
Graham makes the point by paralleling higher education funding and income. In the mid 1980s, when university funding was at its height, per capita income in Florida was 101 percent of the national average. Twenty-odd years later, we're back down to below the national average. Meanwhile, Gov. Charlie Crist and the Legislature prefer to fantasize about how the housing market will magically rocket back up, and hordes of people will move back down. As if concrete and drywall will save us.
Do Florida's citizens really see their universities as nothing more than respectable cover for semi-professional football teams? Are they okay with all those 21st century jobs going to North Carolina or Georgia or other states that have made higher education a priority? Legislators keep congratulating the universities on how cheap they are (as long as that cheapness doesn't extend to their remuneration). Mike Haridopolos sees no problem here: "Florida's universities are the most affordable in the nation." Jack E. Davis, the Florida history professor, replies, "Affordable education is not necessarily quality education."
After all, you don't get what you don't pay for.
Diane Roberts is professor of English at Florida State University.