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Column: Time to fast-track our advances in higher ed

As I begin my term as chair of the state university system's governing body, I am proud of our universities' growing record of achievement — and struck by the many challenges facing Florida and our students.

The global economy is shrinking opportunities for all but the best-educated, most-skilled workers. Industry has never been more mobile or poised to relocate manufacturing or professional hubs. Growing demands on states' coffers are demanding increased efficiencies, smarter approaches and tough choices.

In recent years, our system, its 12 universities and now UF Online have done a great deal to respond to these challenges. As we look to the future, it is clear we must step up these efforts, accelerating our progress to establish Florida as a national leader in equipping our young people — and our state — for these fast-changing times.

Let's start with our core mission: education.

We already have a reputation for excellence in affordability and quality, with universities such as the University of Florida ranked among the best values in the country. We must build on this reputation with a heightened focus on matching degrees with workforce needs, assuring taxpayers and families their investment will endow opportunity.

We must also help more students earn degrees in the timeliest fashion possible. Our system's six-year graduation rate is improving and already ranks third-fastest in the nation. Yet some of our universities graduate students much faster than others. We need to narrow these gaps to minimize students' costs, speed their progress to careers, and ensure more spots for Floridians who are college-bound.

Our system is also committed to economic development.

Academic institutions have long been incubators of new knowledge and business growth, as is clear from Silicon Valley and Research Triangle Park. Florida's universities already play a leading role in seeding such development: Over the past five years, for example, they have won nearly 1,000 patents, far more than any other entity in Florida.

We must continue to transform these patents into new business and well-paying jobs to assure Florida is a technology leader for the 21st century.

As pressure on public resources builds, the most efficient university systems will achieve the greatest prominence.

In this climate, our system is well-positioned to lead.

Prioritizing efficiency is central to our culture. Since 2008, we have closed 197 low-performing programs, with UF and Florida State University leading the way. In fact, FSU was recently named the "most efficient high-quality university in the country" by U.S. News and World Report.

We must continue to seek further efficiencies through stepped-up collaboration. A newly formed partnership among our state's three largest urban research universities — Florida International University, the University of Central Florida and the University of South Florida — is a great step.

Ultimately, our system's success depends on maximizing taxpayers' and tuition-paying families' return on investment.

Florida has been a generous supporter of higher education, and we continue to rely on the state for essential funding. We are grateful, and we are hopeful lawmakers will remain attuned to our needs. A top priority is our "3-2-1 Plan" — $321 million for crucial maintenance, renovation and unfinished building projects.

On our end, we are committed to ensuring that investment of public and tuition dollars yields the highest possible return.

We have a strong track record. Our universities pump $1.8 billion in research into Florida's economy, more than $1 billion from private entities and federal agencies. Eleven university Centers of Excellence have leveraged $84.5 million in state funding since 2003 — and returned that investment more than five-fold with $467 million in grants. Still, we can ratchet up returns through strategies such as more public-private partnerships.

State higher education leaders have limited control over the economic forces reshaping our society.

What we can do, and what we must do, is build on our record of preparing students for careers, growing and creating new businesses and jobs, and making the most of the dollars we spend. In a globalized economy that places a premium on excellence and efficiency, these strategies will help our university system — and our state — grow, prosper and gain national prominence.

Mori Hosseini is chair of the Florida Board of Governors, which is meeting today at Florida Gulf Coast University. He wrote this exclusively for the Tampa Bay Times.

Column: Time to fast-track our advances in higher ed 01/15/14 [Last modified: Wednesday, January 15, 2014 5:20pm]

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