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Thursday, October 20, 2011

Gov Scott increases attacks on public universities

From the Herald Tribune

Having pushed for cuts in public employees' jobs and pay last year, Gov. Rick Scott this year has expressed skepticism about the need for public hospitals and public lands. Now he's targeting public universities.

Must be something about the word "public" that Scott just doesn't like.

And, apparently, he really doesn't like the state university system — at least not as it exists today.

How else can you explain the governor's scattershot attack on higher education?

Scott denigrates the value of a liberal arts education, which engages about 80 percent of Florida college students. He questions the system of tenure by which colleges attract and retain high-caliber faculty.

At the same time, he calls for holding the line on tuition, even though the cost of attending a Florida state college or university is among the lowest in the nation. And even though the Legislature has consistently cut state funding for higher education. (See today's guest column by Lars A. Hafner, president of State College of Florida.)

Then on Monday, in what was surely a political act of spite, Scott decided to highlight online the salaries of employees of Florida's public universities.

Scott's staff described the posting as simply an effort to let Floridians know how their tax dollars are being spent.

But, if you go to the governor's "Florida Has a Right to Know" website and click on "Search State Payroll," there are only two categories: one for the university system, and one for all other state employees.

Discouraging top faculty

The university salary information was already available online, but Scott apparently wanted to draw attention to the six-figure salaries of some professors.

Ironically, the top 10 salaried positions are all professors of medicine and so, like most of the best-paid academics in the state system, are affiliated with the "STEM" programs — science, technology, engineering and math — that Scott says the universities should be emphasizing over the liberal arts.

The trouble is, by embarking on a crusade against the state university system, Scott makes it more likely that top faculty — and top students — will either leave or avoid Florida colleges and universities.

Top-quality professors in STEM programs are in demand elsewhere in higher education — and their skills and knowledge are also coveted in the private sector. Why would they want to work in a system where funding for programs and facilities is consistently cut, where their tenure is threatened, and where the governor makes a spectacle of their salary?

The best students will go where the best programs and the best professors are. The Legislature's decision to cut back on Bright Futures scholarships — intended to attract Florida's best students to state universities — only increases the incentive for top scholars to go elsewhere.

Cutbacks in state funding have already eroded the standing of the state's universities. In the widely read U.S. News & World Report college rankings, the University of Florida has fallen from 47th in 2009 to 58th in the 2012 rankings; none of the state's other universities made the top 100 for 2012.

For a governor and Legislature supposedly focused on improving the economy and creating jobs, the assault on academia is self-defeating.

On its website, the University of Florida puts its annual economic impact at more than $8.76 billion. "UF activities generate 100,000 statewide jobs," the website notes, "including more than 34,000 university employees and those employed by supporting businesses."

"Every state dollar appropriated to the University of Florida," the site says, "results in a $15 return on investment."

Florida State University's website says its faculty members "attract nearly $200 million a year in research dollars," and that FSU "consistently ranks in the top 10 universities nationally in physical sciences grants awarded by the National Science Foundation."

Damaging attacks

Yes, these are all university-generated figures, and their point is to make the schools look good. But if you take the numbers for UF and FSU and if you multiply them out through the entire university system, you can see the schools' huge economic impact.

Almost any organization — public or private — can be improved, and the university system is no exception. If the state can take constructive steps to encourage more students to pursue studies in science, technology, engineering and math, it should do so.

But Scott's and the Legislature's attacks on public universities and colleges are not constructive. They're damaging. And if they continue, the state, its students and its economy will pay a high price.

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