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The politics of fixing higher education in Florida

Peter Rummell, past chairman of the Florida Council of 100, a nonpartisan organization of the state's leading CEOs, outlined some long-term solutions to the urgent need to fix higher education in Florida in a recent speech to the council. Here is an adapted and condensed version of his remarks.

A small group of us went to North Carolina last month to spend time with Erskin Bowles — the president of University of North Carolina's system. (In Florida, the equivalent job is chancellor.)

He ran the White House for Bill Clinton in his second term, is an accomplished investment banker, an impressive guy. He opened the meeting by saying, "My office is being flooded with resumes from your best scientists and researchers. We're going to hire them away from your universities unless you get your act together in Florida. Now, what can I do for you?"

That is about as damning a statement as a competitor can make, and I have taken it as the ultimate summary of where we are.

So what do we do? How can the business community help frame the issues and impact what, in the end, is not really an education issue at all, but rather a very sophisticated political issue?

How do we have the conversation in a thoughtful way but at the same time make it comprehensible to someone who doesn't live with it every day but is genuinely interested? I think all the relevant issues can be looked at as three continuums:

• Funding vs. accountability

• Tuition versus aid

• Independence of institutions versus need for systemic governance.

Funding versus accountability. There are two elements: absolute dollars available in any year; and — the one nobody will talk about — accountability. Until the political forces believe that the university forces are really accountable and are spending their existing budgets responsibly, new dollars are going to be very hard to get. I promise you this feeling — whether it's perception or reality — is at the root of much of the dysfunctional conversation that the universities and Legislature have.

Interestingly, Erskine Bowles in North Carolina intuitively knew that. He spent much of the first 12 to 18 months really understanding the budget system and looking for opportunities to do things more efficiently — and then packaged that in an understandable and businesslike way in his early conversations with the Legislature.

Tuition versus aid. It is impossible to talk about tuition, need-based aid, prepaid and Bright Futures in isolation. Doing something with tuition without dealing with need-based aid is never going to fly politically.

Up front, we all need to agree that any political solution has to occur over time. There is no one-year answer here — people currently in the system will have to be held harmless — but if we don't take a long view and agree on the end goal, it just digs the hole deeper every year.

The progress that has been made this year is great — and de-linking Bright Futures and the tuition increases are a huge move. It is a big step in the right direction, and the Legislature deserves enormous credit.

Institutional independence versus systemic needs. It is far too simple-minded to just put your foot down and say that trustees need to run each university and that they know best. Or that all things have to be decided from a centralized view.

Florida is not the first state to deal with this. It is going to take leadership from the governor, elected officials, university and board leadership that have a shared vision for a long-term opportunity. They are the people who can create that vision. What does excellence mean, what does success look like? Once we know that, then we can create the political formula that admits it will take time and that compromise is essential, but compromise within a framework of that vision.

And all that has to be against the backdrop of a state that believes at its heart that a great university system is fundamental to a great state. I think many involved think a great University of Florida is key, or a great Florida State University or University of South Florida is key, but they have not made the leap from parochial to systemic that we have to make to get to that level.

Michigan has Ann Arbor, North Carolina has Chapel Hill, but there is also a sense in these states of the entire system and that they are all pieces of the whole. I don't think many in Florida have made that leap and until enough do, it is always going to be an uphill battle.

And this is one place the business community can and should play a major role.

I was just leaving the board when (UCF President) John Hitt was making his case for the UCF medical school. Forget for a moment whether you were for or against the idea of another medical school. That is not the point here. The point is his entire argument was an economic development argument for Central Florida — and he did a masterful job. His focus and tactics were exactly right — but it needs to be a statewide argument, and that is the argument the system has to make with the state. And very few get it. It is somehow easier to make the argument when you have a site-specific opportunity and acreage and dollars, etc. It is politically more subtle and more nuanced to talk about system value — but we have to learn how to do it.

We are now engaged in looking for a new chancellor for the system — a huge decision. Can we find someone with the status and vision and long view necessary or will we dumb it down and make a short-term decision? Leadership is so important here, and I think that is the ultimate lesson from the North Carolina model.

It all starts with (1) a long-term vision accompanied by (2) a set of steps that incrementally move in that direction and (3) a leader who can create the excitement and commitment to sell it.

We have made a huge, important start in this legislative session. We should celebrate that but keep in mind it is only a start. It is easy to talk about this for 15 minutes. But it is hard to do. Yet we do not have an option. You know that, I know that. We have to convince everyone else of it.

The politics of fixing higher education in Florida 05/16/09 [Last modified: Saturday, May 16, 2009 4:30am]

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