1. Opinion

Florida takes low road on higher education

Published Jun. 23, 2012

The sorry spectacle of Florida's Board of Governors haggling over tuition increases like used car salesmen was sobering. It showed just how much damage Gov. Rick Scott's pinched view of higher education has inflicted in such a short time. For a governor who claims he wants higher education to serve as an economic engine for the state, he's setting the wrong priorities and reducing what could be a world-class university system to a widget factory for bachelor's degrees. That doesn't serve students, Florida taxpayers or the state's economy.

Scott set his goals for higher education last week, and his top priority is predictable: Keep it cheap for students. Next: job placement. There is no mention of the power of universities as research centers that fuel innovation or the importance of the liberal arts in fostering critical and creative thinking. Translation: Let's shutter the English departments and board up sociology and psychology. Cue Sam Cooke: "Don't know much about history …''

Scott's message pressed heavily Thursday on the Board of Governors, who approved each of the 11 universities' requests for differential tuition — the amount above the base tuition set by the Legislature each year. Eight of the 11 requested the maximum 15 percent to help cope with a $300 million cut in state funding for 2012-13. Just two universities got it. The rest saw their requests whittled down in a flurry of votes that were based more on political calculation than any serious analysis of what the universities actually needed to do their job.

This is no way to run a university system — much less improve it so it can help Florida transform its economy away from low-wage service jobs. But this is the fallout from a governor whose only metric for success is the bottom line. What the governor didn't acknowledge last week was that under his tenure, every Florida university student has been paying more to get less.

Scott's first two years in office have seen the Legislature strip state support from universities — including $300 million for next year — that tuition increases haven't come close to covering. And Florida remains far below other states such as North Carolina when it comes to total dollars spent on educating each undergraduate student. So this is just a cost shift from the miserly state to the students whom the governor now also wants to protect from paying more.

Scott blithely claimed he just wants Florida's universities to be as efficient as possible. But the governor ceded that high ground two months ago when he signed into law the creation of Florida Polytechnic University in Polk County, an expensive and unwarranted folly championed by state Senate Budget Chairman JD Alexander, R-Lake Wales. Alexander held the rest of the Legislature hostage during the 2012 session to get his expensive pork project and Scott — for all his claims of watchdogging tax dollars — signed it into law.

In an ideal world, the Board of Governors — which under the state Constitution is supposed to have broad authority over university operations — would have stood up to Scott in the long-term interest of the university system. It would have thoughtfully set each university's differential tuition, mindful that to do anything less would broadcast a negative message to the greater higher education community as the state soon goes looking for a new president for its flagship University of Florida. But instead the board let a shortsighted governor bully them into accepting a lesser vision — and then heard him express his disappointment in the tuition increases it did approve. There's nothing to celebrate in that.


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