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The state is finally taking steps to improve its public universities, but it will take time and persistence to achieve real results.
Published Aug. 2, 2007

Whenever I'm asked, and sometimes even before I'm asked, I advise parents of college-age children to not send their sons and daughters to private schools, but to send them to public institutions, at least if there are any good ones in their state.

I say this for the obvious reason. The tuition/fee difference between a good private school and a good state school can be as much as $40,000, and, aside from the dubious coin of prestige, it's hard to see what you would be buying. Ivy League colleges once had a monopoly on world-class faculty, but today high-powered scholars and teachers can be found in the classrooms of any number of good state universities.

There's that word "good" again. A (relatively) inexpensive education may not be such a bargain if along with the lower price comes a lower quality. The challenge is to combine first-class schooling with affordability and access. The temptation is to do things on the cheap.

Both the challenge and the temptation are on display these days in Florida where a drama in many acts is unfolding. Former Gov. Bob Graham is suing to take away the Legislature's claimed authority to determine tuition and fees at the state's 11 public universities. Graham contends that the Legislature has been ignoring Amendment 11, which created a board of governors in 2002 to manage the university system. The board, in turn, has been accused of surrendering its responsibilities to the Legislature.

Meanwhile, the same Legislature voted a 5 percent tuition increase, which was promptly vetoed by the current governor, Charlie Crist, at the same time that statewide budget cuts threatened to remove $100-million from the system's coffers. Crist has, however, reversed his opposition to a differential tuition raise of 15 percent for three of the state's research universities.

Confused yet? I am. But things clarified a bit on July 10 when the board of governors, sometimes called the "somnolent overseers," woke up and took three actions that amounted to laying down a gauntlet.

First, the board joined Graham's suit, thereby defying the Legislature. Second, the board voted for a 5 percent tuition increase, thereby defying the governor. Third, the board froze enrollment at current levels, thereby defying everyone, including, potentially, parents with children in high school. Moreover, the board did these things despite warnings issued at the meeting by two state legislators who serve on the House and Senate higher education appropriations committees.

These actions did not come out of the blue. Carolyn K. Roberts, chairwoman of the board, fired a warning shot in an op-ed in the St. Petersburg Times in June. "By every indicator," she wrote, "Florida falls behind in higher education."

Mark Rosenberg, chancellor of the state university system, brought a "background and options" paper to the July 10 meeting, documenting in detail how bad things are (lowest tuition and highest student-faculty ratio in the country). After their vote, board members braced themselves for a firestorm of criticism. But except for a dyspeptic threat by Senate President Ken Pruitt ("See you in court") none arrived. Instead, state newspapers published editorials with titles like "At Long Last" and "Universities' Board Right."

What does it all mean? The hope is that it means the beginning of the realization of the goal announced in 1980 by Graham, who called for "a thrust for greatness" and the building of a world-class university system.

More easily said than done. At present, as Rosenberg and his board know, Florida is not even in the second tier of university systems in this country. Florida does not have a single campus that measures up to the best schools in the systems of Virginia, Wisconsin and Georgia, never mind first-tier states like California, Michigan and North Carolina. Climbing that hill will be an arduous task, and the key will be a persistence few states are up to.

The conditions that leave a university system depressed have been a long time in the making and will take time to reverse. Five straight years of steadily increased funding, tuition raises and high-profile faculty hires would send a message that something really serious is happening. Ten more years of the same, and it might actually happen.

Stanley Fish is the Davidson-Kahn Distinguished University Professor and a professor of law at Florida International University in Miami and dean emeritus of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at the University of Illinois at Chicago. He also has taught at the University of California at Berkeley, Johns Hopkins and Duke University. He is the author of 10 books.