Public universities plan cutbacks for fall

Schools counted on the vetoed tuition hike.

Published June 15, 2007

MIAMI - Enrollment freezes. Shorter library and computer lab hours. Fewer course offerings. More adjunct instructors instead of tenured full-time professors.

These are the changes and cutbacks some of Florida's largest public universities are prepared to make following the governor's recent veto of a 5 percent tuition increase worth $19-million and in the wake of years' worth of insufficient state funding.

"It's not fair to the students who are already here to keep bringing in more students without the money to support them, " said Florida State University provost Larry Abele. "It's ridiculous."

Abele, during a meeting Thursday of the board that oversees Florida's 11 state universities, outlined a number of cost-cutting measures that FSU president T.K. Wetherell is expected to announce today.

Starting in fall 2008, FSU will freeze enrollment levels until the number of students on campus matches the number of students funded with state taxpayer dollars, Abele said. That means instead of admitting 9, 300 students for the 2008-09 year, FSU would admit about 7, 500.

Abele told the Board of Governors that FSU administrators also plan to limit the hours of its free campus computer labs and its libraries. Study-abroad programs might be re-evaluated.

But the bigger question for the university system is how the Board of Governors will respond to Gov. Charlie Crist's veto, and what political ramifications any action will have.

Board Chairwoman Carolyn Roberts urged her colleagues to "demonstrate courage."

"We believe now our institutions are at risk, " Roberts said. "We cannot continue to meet our promises of quality. We cannot sit idly by and debate and wait for a political breakthrough."

But the board declined to make any final decisions until next month, and some seemed uneasy about challenging the governor and lawmakers. Roberts even said one option is to continue to set funding goals and just hope for the best from the Legislature.

The board identified a number of more aggressive options, from seeking a state Supreme Court ruling on the board's authority over tuition levels, to ordering a statewide enrollment freeze.

Crist, an FSU graduate, vetoed the tuition hike last month. Tuition would have gone from $73.71 per credit hour to $77.39 for in-state undergraduates, not including fees for things like health services and athletics. That's about $55 more per semester.

"It's less than a cell phone bill, " said board member Ava Parker.

Florida's average cost of tuition and fees last year was $3, 383 - the lowest in the country, according to a Washington state study of national tuition rates. The national average was $4, 872.

Crist said he vetoed the hike because he wants to guarantee families an affordable education.

But universities say they sorely needed that $19-million in additional tuition revenue. It could have paid for 199 new professors, or almost 285, 000 new library books, or 380 new counselors and advisers or police officers.

The Legislature, meanwhile, awarded $100-million for research centers this spring but did not budget about $17-million that universities sought to cover next year's expected growth in student enrollment. A student's tuition covers only a quarter of the cost of educating them, so state universities depend on state funding to cover the rest.

Combined with similar enrollment funding shortfalls since 2004, state universities are now about $120-million in the hole, said chancellor Mark Rosenberg.

The schools enroll more than 5, 500 for whom they get no state support. That includes 700 at the University of South Florida and 1, 100 at the University of Central Florida.

"You reach a point where you're just stretched as far as you can get, " said UCF president John Hitt, "We've got to have some relief."

Shannon Colavecchio-Van Sickler can be reached at 813 226-3403 or svansickler@sptimes.com.