Total Pageviews

Search This Blog

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Rick Scott turns on Florida's Universities

From the Palm Beach Post

by John Kennedy

Months after making controversial changes in the public school system, Gov. Rick Scott is aiming higher - at state colleges and universities, which he wants on the front lines of his fight to create jobs in Florida.

During the past two weeks, Scott has questioned the worth of anthropology degrees; made public the salaries of professors, administrators and other employees of the State University System; and demanded answers from university presidents about how specific programs are helping students find work.

He and his allies call the campaign a "conversation starter" - aimed at rallying support for his push to increase the number of graduates in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, the so-called STEM disciplines that he says will provide the skills needed in an evolving economy.

Fewer than 20 percent of Florida college and university graduates are earning degrees in these areas, he and state officials say.

"Let's make sure that our universities are first saying, 'Hey, employers, what sort of jobs are out there?' so we can make sure we tell our students what the job market is like,'" Scott said last week.

But critics dismiss Scott's tactics as ham-handed, many calling them an all-out attack on Florida higher education.

Some fear program cuts

The Republican governor expected pushback from university officials.

But even some within Scott's own party are questioning his approach. They fear it could lead to cuts in other programs within a university system already strained by years of reduced spending, especially with a projected $2 billion state budget shortfall all but assuring another round of belt-tightening next year.

"Every time he says he wants something, it doesn't mean it comes to be," said state Rep. Marlene O'Toole, R-Lady Lake, chair of the Higher Education budget subcommittee.

"If we do this, then something has to happen over here," she said. "You can't put 10 pounds in a five-pound bag."

Senate President Mike Haridopolos, R-Melbourne, who teaches at the University of Florida, agreed that driving up the STEM statistics would likely reduce offerings in other areas.

"If every campus has an anthropology program, maybe you'd want to consolidate to three or four, and maybe there will be universal agreement among universities," Haridopolos said. "It doesn't necessarily have to be forced upon them. But if they're facing tight budgets, you'd want to prioritize."

Scott's interest in changing Florida's higher education system has some kitchen table qualities to it. He acknowledges his daughter, Jordan Kandah, has an anthropology degree but couldn't find work in the field and is now studying for a master's degree in business administration.

Independent research also predicts growth in jobs in technical fields. The Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce issued a report last week that forecasts 385,010 STEM jobs will be available in Florida by 2018, 63,000 more than were in the state in 2008. Still, that work will represent only 4 percent of all jobs in Florida in 2018, the researchers found.

But Scott's approach appears to draw most deeply from proposals embraced by Texas Gov. Rick Perry, a Republican presidential candidate.

The roots of the plan are in an initiative called "Seven Breakthrough Solutions," developed by the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a free-market think tank heavily financed by organizations associated with Koch Industries.

Charles and his brother David Koch, who has a home in Palm Beach, are billionaire oil industrialists who support groups that have helped drive the tea party movement.

Scott, Perry and at least two other Republican governors attended a conference this summer hosted by the Kochs, aimed at promoting American enterprise and prosperity.

The "seven solutions" call for linking university tenure decisions to student ratings of their professors and the number of students they teach. Colleges also would be called upon to calculate the value of instructors, giving bonuses to the best-performing instructors and sharing such data with students and the public.

The end of tenure?

Critics say the move is at least partially aimed at weakening tenure, the contractual right not to be fired without just cause.

Scott's higher education approach parallels the themes of the merit-pay and tenure-busting measures he and the Republican-led Legislature agreed to apply to Florida public schools this year.

The state's largest teachers union is challenging that law as unconstitutional. And Scott appears on a collision course with another union over his latest venture.

"Tenure is the engine of the university," said Chris Robe, a professor and president of Florida Atlantic University's chapter of United Faculty of Florida, which represents 23,000 faculty members and graduate assistants in the state.

"It's not a walk in the park to get tenure now," Robe said. "But if you do away with it, you would not see professors wanting to teach in Florida."

Scott has not detailed his plan. But his letter to university presidents this month included 17 questions. Among them:
•"Do you have measurable goals to meet employers' current needs?"
•"What is your process in determining which programs to terminate and which programs to initiate?"
•"How do you measure the university's cost and revenue per program?"

Scott also has been appointing like-minded people to university and college boards of trustees. When he interviews applicants, he gives them copies of the "seven breakthrough solutions." If they resist, they're not appointed, said Scott's chief of staff, Steve MacNamara, a tenured professor at Florida State University on leave to work in the administration.

"I think people have a right to know what those in the university system do for the kind of money they earn," MacNamara said. "And we need to push the number of STEM degrees higher."

College 'too late'

But a co-author of the Georgetown University study, Nicole Smith, told The Palm Beach Post, "By the time you start college, it's already too late."

Elementary school is where these programs need to be fostered, Smith said.

But per-pupil dollars were reduced by 8 percent in Florida public schools this year as Scott and Republican lawmakers cut $1.3 billion from their budget.

"You have to build a culture for STEM," Smith said. "And you have to start early, not when kids are in college."

Staff writer Dara Kam contributed to this story.

No comments:

Post a Comment