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News Clips 01/16/2013
EDITORIAL: Scott's exciting promise for the University of Florida
Source: Sun Sentinel, 01/15/13
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For all his business prowess, Gov. Rick Scott gives us whiplash in setting education strategy.
His first year in office, the governor slashed the budget for public schools by $3 billion. His second year, he reversed course and added back $1 billion. This year, he says education funding will be flat, or maybe a little higher, depending on which day you catch him.
But — whoa Nelly! — look at the pendulum shift the governor just took on higher education.
While details are still sketchy, Gov. Scott last week promised to ensure the University of Florida reaches the ranks of the nation's 10 best public universities.
This is great news for Florida, the nation's fourth most populous state. We deserve to have at least one public university that stands shoulder-to-shoulder with the best in California, Michigan and Virginia.
The University of Florida is, after all, our state's flagship university. It commands the greatest research budget — $740 million in annual expenditures, compared to $230 million at Florida State University, $400 million at the University of South Florida and $109 million at the University of Central Florida. Closer to home, Florida International University reports $110 million in annual research expenditures and Florida Atlantic $62 million.
Among Florida's 13 universities, UF also is closest to the Top 10 goal, ranked 17th among public universities by U.S. News.
If UF can break into the top tier, all boats will rise because in higher education, you're known by the company you keep. If UF is perceived as an elite institution, it will help other Florida universities fight the bias that we don't measure up.
To make it happen, Gov. Scott intervened, just as the UF board of trustees was preparing to announce a successor to President Bernard Machen, who had planned to retire after nine years.
So that you know, Machen has been pushing a tuition-hike agenda for several years. He notes only 10 states charge lower tuition. About five years ago, Machen helped lead an effort that allowed UF, FSU and USF to raise tuition 15 percent a year. It didn't take long for the other universities to get similar increases.
What's surprising is that also last week, Scott appointed five new members to the Florida Board of Governors, which oversees the university system. Each faced a single litmus test: a promise to hold the line on tuition.
"Tuition rates have risen 71 percent over the past four years and graduates are facing unprecedented levels of debt," the governor says. "We can't continue on this path."
Frankly, the governor is right. In a tough economy, too many students are graduating with unprecedented debt and an older workforce can no longer afford to get retrained. It hardly makes sense to increase tuition by double-digit percentages every year.
Still, the governor bears responsibility for the tuition hikes. Last year, he cut the university system's budget by $400 million, which the presidents reduced to $300 million by raising tuition. In five years' time, the state has gone from paying three-quarters of the cost of a college degree to about half, a big hit in a short period.
Among his peers, Machen has been a leader in the search for solutions. He has suggested charging more for degrees that lead to high-paying jobs, such as those in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. By contrast, the governor's higher education task force recently suggested we charge less for these degrees. And the governor himself has suggested we charge students more if they want a liberal arts education.
So it's a surprise that Machen agreed to stay. He says we'll understand his decision better in a few weeks when the governor releases his budget.
Whatever the governor promised, it's good for higher education in Florida. We hope it means reducing the ratio of professors to students, which has seen an ever-growing rise. And let's be sure those are real professors, not adjuncts, who fill too many gaps today.
Given the politics of the university system, and FSU's prominence in the Capitol, it will be interesting to follow the governor's push to grow UF's preeminence.
We will be rooting for his success. For history tells us that if UF can break through, the competition will begin for who goes next.