Low-budget higher ed

Gov. Rick Scott likes to reduce every human endeavor to the bottom line: black ink or red, profit or loss. Yet basic math eludes him — $1 billion for K-12 this year when the budget was cut by $1.3 billion last year does not equal more money for public schools.

Appropriating millions for JD Alexander's trophy college — the one with no students, no faculty, no facilities and no accreditation — while yanking $300 million from universities with all of the above, subtracts value from higher education in Florida (though the Star Wars statues are awesome). Vetoing the bill to let FSU and UF to raise their bargain-basement tuition rates to something approaching what other flagship state universities charge, does not add up to intelligent higher ed policy.

I'm a professor at Florida State, so I have a dog in this fight, maybe a whole pack of dogs, all hungry for higher standards, more resources and a richer teaching experience. No rational person goes into academia for the money.

Those lurid tales of stratospheric six-figure salaries are mostly fiction: the only people making above 100 grand a year are administrators, a few profs in the schools of business and law, and a handful of scientists. Oh, and football coaches. Football coaches do pretty well.

The rest of us aren't exactly rolling in cash, and would certainly be much more flush if we'd listened to our mothers and become accountants or dentists or Steve Jobs. But we love to teach, love to research, and love the freedom to pursue interesting projects and bring new knowledge to students.

Nevertheless, it's pretty damned disheartening that while enrollments keep rising, the state's higher education budget keeps shrinking. Universities in Florida have lost 35 percent of their funding since 2008. This has real consequences for the quality of instruction as faculty flee the state. Over the past two years, dozens of faculty stars have left FSU and UF. They weren't headed for Harvard or Yale, but the likes of Texas A&M, the University of Kansas, Ohio State and the University of South Carolina.

One result of this brain drain is Florida's lousy student-faculty ratio: 26 students for every prof at FSU, for example, and 21 at UF. At the University of Alabama, it's 19:1. At the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill it's 17:1. This matters because students cannot get the individual classroom attention they deserve. It matters because there aren't enough faculty to teach the classes students want (and no money for hiring more), so the students often take five years to graduate.

Florida's universities are comparatively cheap: a year's in-state tuition at UF is about $5,700 and at FSU it's about $5,200. At UNC, a year of classes runs more than $7,000, and at the University of Georgia, it tops $9,000.

Now, I want more people to have the opportunity to go to college, and raising fees is hardly the best way to achieve that goal. But the governor and the state Legislature are in thrall to Social Darwinism when it comes to education (though not corporations), and refuse to invest in state universities. Therefore, we raise tuition. If they would show some leadership and raise some revenue, Florida's universities could compete. Hey, we have sales tax exemptions that could be lifted, uncollected internet taxes, and do companies really have to be essentially bribed to relocate here? But they won't do it. Grover Norquist might throw a tantrum.

The problem isn't simply the traditional hostility conservatives feel toward campus eggheads who, they think, put the "liberal" into "Liberal Arts." The problem is ideological. Rick Scott and far too many in the Legislature see college as nothing more than job training. Scott has said that he wants universities to stop encouraging what he sees as frivolous, dead-end degrees such as humanities or anthropology: "We don't need them here."

The anthropologists (a feisty bunch) responded to that spectacular display of ignorance by showing that anthropology majors land jobs at places like the World Bank, Xerox, NASA, GM, the FBI, CSI units, assorted HR departments and even a few universities. Scott thinks we need more students in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Nothing wrong with that. But, for starters, Florida's struggling and chronically underfunded public schools won't be able to prepare many kids for those disciplines. Moreover, does Scott really think he (or anyone else) can tell a 20-year-old what she must study? Mandate a major? How very Soviet of him. And how silly.

I teach English, a discipline that Scott no doubt considers as "useless" as anthropology. My students read Moby-Dick, Paradise Lost and the novels of William Faulkner. But what we really study is what it means to be human. I don't teach facts about famous writers, I teach students how to think critically, how to question, how to analyze, how to challenge everything which claims to be "authority."

Most of all I teach the craft of language — how to communicate. Because being able to tell a straight story and formulate a convincing argument are skills much in demand. FSU's English majors go on to become entrepreneurs, lawyers, doctors, actors, poets, even politicians.

Of course, we want our graduates to get jobs. But we also want them to become more informed, more savvy, more tolerant, more sophisticated citizens. If Gov. Scott is serious about making Florida a fertile place for high-salary (or even decent salary) jobs, we need universities that rank higher on the academic scale and lower on the party school scale. To do that we need money. Raising tuition is not anyone's first choice, but it's unavoidable — until the state gets a clue. Otherwise Scott will go down in Florida history as the man who, as Oscar Wilde (look him up, governor) said, knew the price of everything and the value of nothing.

Diane Roberts is author of Dream State, a historical memoir of Florida. She teaches at Florida State University.

Low-budget higher ed 05/12/12 [Last modified: Saturday, May 12, 2012 5:30am]

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