In the past decade, Florida has changed how it governs state universities, adopted new tuition policies, embraced online learning and found efficiencies that have outsiders marveling at how it does so well with so little. But the fact remains that the state's perpetual underinvestment in higher education means it is losing ground to other states. No amount of micromanaging by Gov. Rick Scott and Republican legislative leaders has changed that dynamic. Florida's 12 universities need more resources — ideally from both the state and tuition.
As Florida begins its hunt for a new State University System chancellor, the system is in better shape than just two years ago, Board of Governors chairman Dean Colson, a Miami attorney, told the Tampa Bay Times editorial board on Monday. A divisive lawsuit with the Legislature over the authority to set tuition has been settled, state funding — after dropping precipitously — has rebounded somewhat, and state leaders are communicating better.
But the damage from budget cuts is significant. Just last month, for example, the Gainesville Sun reported how five years of budget cutting led to a 50 percent drop in faculty for one of the University of Florida's most popular majors: psychology. The result, according to professors, is that average class sizes in mid-level courses have jumped from 30 to 150; research grants are down 90 percent; and the department has fallen out of the National Research Council's 50 best. It led one retiring professor to wonder how UF could achieve top 10 status as a public university if one of its most popular departments isn't even in the top 50.
Changing the dynamic, Colson agrees, will take more money — be it from the state, students or private donations. And while the Legislature agreed this year to provide $15 million in additional state money for UF annually for the next five years toward improving its academic standing, that won't be nearly enough to make a real difference. Nor does the scheme address the broader needs of the entire system.
Scott and state lawmakers need to accept that nothing they may try to do in Tallahassee — be it coming up with gimmicky $10,000 bachelor degrees at colleges or new accountability matrixes — will make up for the fact that Florida universities have far fewer dollars to spend per student than those in other states. The governor, House Speaker Will Weatherford and Senate President Don Gaetz talk about wanting to improve the state universities. But until they back it up with investment, it's just rhetoric.