Mark Rosenberg picked the right battles in his three years as chancellor of Florida's university system. He worked to dispel the notion that a state competing in a global economy can fund higher education on the cheap. He saw that universities needed a wall to protect their academic missions from political meddling. He also balanced the needs of the universities, which serve distinct populations throughout the state, in one of the toughest budgetary cycles in years. As he returns to teaching, the Board of Governors, which oversees the university system, should find a successor who can build on Rosenberg's record. Universities need a strong advocate, not a weak bureaucrat unwilling to speak frankly to legislators about the consequences of their neglect.
Rosenberg was blunt about Florida's cheapness, and the facts speak for themselves. The 11 public universities have been forced to cut more than $200-million over the last two years, forcing staff reductions and enrollment freezes. Dozens of frustrated faculty members are fleeing Florida for better paying jobs in North Carolina and other more progressive states. Florida's tuition ranks at the bottom while its student-faculty ratio hovers near the top. Only the University of Florida ranks among the top 50 universities. Thousands of talented high school graduates cannot get in the door of their preferred university. The crisis is not, as board members debated Thursday, about quality or access. It's about both.
States have choices. They can create a work force of the best and brightest, or they can raid their tax base to generate concessions to attract industry. Barely a quarter of Floridians aged 25 to 64 has a bachelor's degree or higher. The national average is 29 percent, and in the 10 most productive states that rate jumps to one in three. Rosenberg helped frame the public's understanding of what's going wrong by tying the knot between higher education and better paying jobs.
The board needs a successor who will use the bully pulpit to rally support behind the universities. That the private sector is pushing harder now to raise Florida's educational standing is both a promising development and a telling sign of how bad the universities have had it. The growth in sponsored research is a success story, but there also needs to be more state support for the undergraduate level, where too many adjuncts teach and too many students cannot get into the classes they need to graduate.
The next chancellor will need to pick the right battles, and he or she will need the board's support in standing up to the Legislature. One challenge is to push for financial stability. Universities cannot plan long-term, retain talented professors or get a grip on their enrollment or capital needs if their budgets are jerked around year to year. With no end in sight to the softening in Florida real estate, tourism or sales, the value of the universities gets clearer by the day. The board needs to keep sending that message. Our cheapness has literally closed the university doors in some cases. That is no strategy for going forward.