There are some valid reasons for considering closing the University of South Florida’s undergraduate College of Education program in lieu of a graduate program. Among them, years of dwindling enrollment and a need for budget cuts in the wake of the pandemic. Such a dramatic step, however, needs deft handling, including getting input from the leaders who run the local school districts — the people who hire many of those newly minted teachers. But university administrators left those partners out in the cold. The decision to close the program even caught their own board members by surprise. Whatever you think of the decision, USF leaders get an F in public relations and community outreach.
USF College of Education’s interim dean announced the news in a letter to faculty in the middle of October, calling it a “strategic reimagining and reconfiguring” of the undergraduate school to become a graduate school, possibly under the College of Behavioral and Community Sciences. USF education students would take five years to receive a Master of Arts in Teaching, instead of the four-year undergraduate degree. School leaders likened the program to the one at the University of Florida, as well as Harvard and Stanford.
Administrators say the restructuring will save the university $6.8 million over the next two years. They also point to the program’s falling enrollment, which only had 1,066 undergraduates and 1,318 graduate students in 2019, compared to 2,893 and 2,224 in 2009.
There may be good reasons to restructure the education program, but it was an unforced error for the university not to bring local school districts into the fold. The districts depend on USF’s undergraduate program for hiring, especially at a time when there is a teacher shortage. In Pasco County, 1,887 of about 5,000 educators in the public school system got their degree from USF, roughly 38 percent. In Pinellas, numbers were similar: The district hires roughly a quarter of its 600 to 800 new teachers a year from USF’s undergraduate program.
USF’s trustees chastised the administration at a board meeting Tuesday. The issue was not on the official agenda, but board members were so incensed that they brought it up anyway. Their complaints largely centered on the university’s secretive handling of the decision, having not notified many of the board members about it in advance of their announcement.
USF administrators should remember that their decisions — whether it be closing an undergraduate school or consolidating campuses — do not happen in a vacuum. They affect the region that helps support the public university. Community partners like the local school districts deserve better than to be blindsided by controversial decisions.
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