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Florida has something to learn from its college students

Talk about a learning experience.

After hearing the views of nine impressive young Floridians this week, you know the state's future is in capable hands — as long as they don't exit the state for better lives elsewhere.

These people make it clearer than ever that Florida is making a grave mistake by short-changing its higher education system.

The nine people are the student body presidents of our major universities. They were invited to the Governor's Mansion to meet with a pair of Florida State alums, Gov. Charlie Crist and Lt. Gov. Jeff Kottkamp, to talk about higher education.

They are co-presidents T.M. Mawn and Chase Sokolow of New College in Sarasota, Sean Terwilliger of Florida Gulf Coast University, Greg Morgan of the University of South Florida, Laymon Hicks of FSU, Andrew Collins of Florida A&M, Abraham Cohen of Florida Atlantic, A.J Meyer of Florida International University and Kevin Reilly Jr. of the University of Florida. All were polished, well informed and politically astute — the antithesis of the popular "party school" image of Florida's state universities.

Meyer of FIU said it "really sends a message" that Florida has to ask for a waiver to get federal stimulus money because the state doesn't spend enough on education. "That says something," Meyer said.

Morgan of USF said Florida schools are slipping farther behind other states in quality. "We're at a pivotal point," Morgan said. "The students are really starting to worry about the worth of their degree."

Hicks of FSU told Crist about a student-led program to raise $100,000 in small donations to give bonuses to good professors in hopes of preventing them from leaving. The program is called POP, for Protect our Professors.

Reilly of Palm Harbor thanked Crist for supporting a tuition hike of up to 15 percent at each school, and politely but firmly challenged Crist to stand firm in opposing any more higher education cuts.

"We ask you to take another bold stand," Reilly said.

"We boldly go there," Crist replied.

In a followup e-mail, Reilly said the proposed tuition increase is a step in the right direction but added: "The revenue it will generate is a drop in the bucket compared to the cuts that we have had to face over the past year and that we stand to face this session. Classes, programs and departments have been closed, faculty and staff have been laid off and many support services have either been scaled back or shut down altogether."

Student government leadership has long been a springboard to political success in Florida. Three current examples: House speaker-to-be Dean Cannon of UF; Sen. Lee Constantine, R-Altamonte Springs, of UCF; and Crist himself of FSU.

And much is written and said about the supposed mediocrity at Florida's universities, the obsession with football and all. The two big ones, UF and FSU, often rank among the nation's leaders in "party schools." But while his peers were partying in Panama City, FAMU's Collins spent his spring break vacationing in China on a corporate networking journey for the university's School of Business.

"New College is a pretty awesome place," Sokolow told Crist, beaming with school pride.

After the Tuesday morning meeting ended, the two guys from New College, dressed in handsome dark suits like the others, climbed into their Toyota Corolla in the mansion's parking lot. They had to drive back to Sarasota right away so they wouldn't miss any more classes.

Steve Bousquet can be reached at bousquet@sptimes.com or (850) 224-7263.

STEVE COLUMN

Florida has something to learn from its college students 03/20/09 [Last modified: Friday, March 20, 2009 11:49pm]
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