It's hard not to be skeptical about the motives behind Gov. Rick Scott's creation of a new task force on higher education. This is the governor who sees universities as vocational schools, worries the low tuition is too high and declares he has no use for more anthropology majors. He signed into law two state budgets that slashed higher education spending by hundreds of millions of dollars. Yet he approved spending tens of millions on the creation of a 12th university with no students, no faculty and no accreditation. And Florida already has enough long-range plans that the governor and the Legislature ignore.
It doesn't take another task force to determine how to improve higher education in a state where no public universities rank among the nation's top 50 and only one ranks among the top 100 (the University of Florida ranks 58th). More money from the state. Less meddling from state legislators. Better defined roles for each university. Greater leadership from the Board of Governors, which ostensibly oversees the system.
Yet the governor's Blue Ribbon Task Force on State Higher Education Reform will be useful if it can convince Scott that money spent wisely on education offers a great return on investment for both the student and taxpayers. The seven-member committee will include four members chosen by legislative leaders and two by the Board of Governors. It will be chaired by Scott's choice, Dale Brill, president of the Florida Chamber Foundation. If the committee fails, it will be hard for politicians to duck and cover and keep claiming they support higher education.
Higher education in the Sunshine State is having a terrible year. Tuition is going up, the quality of education is going down, and state support is declining by $300 million. Yet Scott and the Legislature approved the creation of another university, Florida Polytechnic, that the state doesn't need and can't afford.
The Board of Governors already has a little-noticed 13-year strategic plan for the state's universities. There are plenty of committees whose work is already gathering dust. So how could this panel's work be any different?
There are two reasons:
• With incoming House Speaker Will Weatherford and incoming Senate President Don Gaetz appointing members to the committee, the legislative leaders are now personally vested in making improvements.
• By bringing together appointees from the Legislature and the Board of Governors, the task force can bridge that divide. Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, hopes the panel can de-politicize the debate and take "a more holistic look at our higher education system."
John Delaney, the president of the University of North Florida who was appointed to the panel by the Board of Governors, is optimistic the governor will support more spending if the task force makes the case with solid evidence. That shouldn't be hard. Delaney once wondered what would result if the state doubled its higher education spending. Experts ran the numbers, and the answer was astounding. Delaney knows that doubling spending will not happen, but he recognizes the need to invest.
The former Jacksonville mayor makes another point. Appropriately, people talk about raising Florida tuition to the national average. But who has argued that the state itself should hit the national average on per-student spending?
Brill, who chairs the panel for the governor, says the point is not to duplicate past efforts — the Board of Governors already has a strategic plan and the Higher Education Coordinating Council has a voluminous report — but to glean from them and others to build consensus for incentives and innovation. The data-driven governor should be driven by this data to set clearer priorities and invest in higher education.