Director, External Relations
OP/ED: What design? State must figure out what it wants from universities
Tallahassee Democrat, July 29, 2009
Government officials and business leaders throughout Florida have, for as long as anyone can remember, talked about achieving excellence in the state university system.
As the saying goes, it's easier said than done.
It's not that those who state a desire for having a top-notch university system are necessarily disingenuous. It's just that moving a mediocre system into the upper echelon is an expensive, long-term process that requires consensus and financial commitment.
Both are lacking in Florida. The Legislature and the Board of Governors (BOG) are in a legal duel to determine who has the authority to set tuition at a time when universities have been staggered by deep budget cuts. The consequences are short- and long-term, academic and economic.
Several experienced, high-performing professors are leaving their jobs at Florida universities, including ours here in Tallahassee, for institutions that are more strongly committed to their programs. Because of major funding cuts, Florida's 11 public universities also have the worst student-to-faculty ratio in the nation: 31 to 1.
The impact of this so-called brain drain goes beyond their institution's tarnished image in academia. Top-notch faculty members are magnets for major grants, and that money — often in the millions of dollars — tends to follow the professors to whom it is awarded. Grant money hires assistants and purchases supplies, and when it dries up, regional economies suffer.
In a state that's been hard hit because of the housing and mortgage crisis, that only makes recovery more difficult.
The business community gets it
Business leaders understand that a mediocre university system is to a state's economic growth what an injury-hobbled offense is to a football team's likelihood for success.
If the system isn't producing the highly trained and educated graduates, businesses in Florida will seek them elsewhere. And absent a top-flight work force, some businesses considering a move to the Sunshine State will think twice.
While significant, the exodus of some faculty members still is a relatively narrow aspect of Florida's economic and higher-education woes. It's a symptom, not the problem itself: Florida doesn't really know what it wants from its higher-ed system, and lawmakers tend to see universities less as an asset and more as a big hole where money goes.
Although the BOG commissioned a study that concluded state leaders should map an "intentional future" for higher education, policymakers can't even agree where the mapping room is, let alone what the charts and graphs should look like. Ironically, the BOG study was titled "Forward by Design: A Framework for Florida's Universities."
If there's a silver lining to the difficult times we're in, it could be that more lawmakers finally may realize that Florida simply can't thrive well into the 21st century using the same tired old formula. A robust knowledge economy requires strong universities.
This is hardly a revolutionary message, but past warnings went largely unheeded, especially when money from the housing market poured into the state's general revenue fund. If policymakers really want to make a lasting difference, they need to rebuild Florida's economy. And a university system that is part of that foundation instead of the frame is much more likely to excel — and Florida's 21st-century economy along with it.
Will the effective leaders in the state please step forward?