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protect higher education in Florida

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Governor Rick Scott's Blue Ribbon Task Force on State Higher Education Reform has completed its recommendations after five months of deliberations. As the governor noted in his executive order establishing the task force, Florida’s state university system, which collectively enrolls more than 324,000 students and annually awards more than 73,000 degrees at all levels, plays a “paramount” role in “creating and transferring knowledge through research, teaching, and service.” We applaud any effort to strengthen the state university system. But we take issue with the task force’s recommendations, which fail to serve its declared goals of ensuring the “quality preparation of Florida’s students for success as engaged citizens and contributors to Florida’s evolving economy” or of promoting “efforts to achieve national preeminence and academic and research excellence by Florida universities.”

 At the heart of the task force’s recommendations is the notion that institutions of higher education should be rewarded or penalized in accordance with the extent to which they reach what the task force calls “state goals,” rather than the supposed goals of the institutions themselves. However, the definition of these “state goals” has shifted yet again. In its meeting of October 29, the task force deleted all reference to the University System’s Board of Governors’ 2012-25 Strategic Plan from earlier drafts of its own recommendations, which includes access to and production of degrees; meeting statewide professional and workforce needs; building world-class academic programs and research capacity; and meeting community needs and fulfilling unique institutional responsibilities.

 Representative William Proctor (R-St. Augustine), a task force member who also chairs the State Universities Appropriations Committee in Tallahassee, noted that too much money might have to be committed should the one-year-old strategic plan even be referenced. Task Force chair Dale Brill concurred that strategic plans should indeed be amended every year or two, even though the very word “strategic” refers to long-term thinking. Rejecting calls to fund Florida’s universities in accordance with the national average, the task force has helped to ensure that our universities, which serve the fourth most populous state in the US, have no hope of ever becoming “world class” or even remaining nationally prominent. Instead the new, extremely vague, strategy is to fund Florida’s universities “at a level comparable to the expectations placed on them through a system tied to initiating and sustaining progress.”    

 What does this mean? The central idea du jour emerging from the task force is a “differentiated tuition structure to support degree programs in strategic areas of emphasis.” The state, the task force argues, “should move away from uniform tuition rates … among all degree programs within a university.” Programs with no tuition increase would be those deemed “high skill, high demand, and high wage.” Liberal arts and social science topics (English, History, Political Science, Psychology, etc.) would cost students more, on the assumption that no one with such a degree has high skills, would ever be in high demand, and would ever earn a high wage, however “high” is defined. As Proctor himself put it on October 29, “English is not a strategic discipline.” As tuition for such non-strategic disciplines increases, these programs would be slowly phased out, or at least severely diminished, as more students seek “strategic degrees.” This new thinking will supposedly solve the financial problems of Florida’s universities while somehow improving the economy of the state.

 Let’s be perfectly frank. The task force’s view of “strategic disciplines” is short-sighted and hardly a vision of “reform.” The punitive differential tuition model will lead not only to a decimation of the liberal arts in Florida. It will also have a destructive impact on the essential and transferrable skills that these disciplines teach. Indeed, the Florida Council of 100 (a non-partisan organization of business leaders) submitted a lengthy memo to the task force in which the Council noted the pressing need for “liberal arts grads with superior analytical, critical thinking, and communication skills who can quickly learn and apply industry/company specific skills.” Numerous enterprises, from medical schools to Fortune 500 companies, agree, and actively recruit quality graduates with those backgrounds and skills. The Board of Governors also identified “globalization” as one of the strategic areas of state development. Yet the task force aims to penalize students who study foreign languages as well as disciplines that analyze globalization and its impact (history, political science, economics, anthropology). How will these ideas advance Florida’s place in a rapidly changing world?

 Other questions must be answered: Will students who change their majors from “strategic” to “non-strategic” areas be forced to pay a financial penalty? Should students who wish to study “non-strategic” topics simply go to college out-of-state, perhaps to universities in Georgia, Alabama, or Mississippi? How will this exodus of some of our brightest and most curious students benefit the State of Florida? What will the impact of empty classrooms be on the cutting-edge research now being done in the liberal arts and social sciences? And, how would this drastic policy change affect the accreditation of Florida’s universities? The Governor’s Task Force has simply not considered the long-term impact of its differential tuition model. It is nothing more than the latest in a string of trendy “market” solutions, easily proposed yet solving nothing.

 We, the undersigned faculty, have dedicated our careers to the common good of the State of Florida. We believe that the institutional goals of our universities are not in conflict with state goals. We also know a great deal about the vital connection between higher education and a responsible and productive citizenry; in fact, this connection is at the very center of our profession. We trust that Governor Scott will recognize the pressing need for meaningful faculty input into future deliberations concerning the future of higher education in the State of Florida. We are easy to find, stretching from Pensacola to Tallahassee to Jacksonville, Gainesville, Orlando, Tampa, Fort Myers, Boca Raton and Miami. We respectfully await his answer.

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