Universities fight to survive

By Times Editorial
Published July 15, 2007

The mutiny in Florida higher education is now fully engaged, and Senate President Ken Pruitt is among those in the Capitol who still don't get it. Yes, the university Board of Governors is asserting constitutional authority to control tuition and fees, a duty long held by the Legislature. But this fight is not about sticking it to the students. It is about survival. ¶ The reason voters decided in 2002 to create a university board with constitutional standing was that higher education had become a legislative stepchild. And the reason this new board decided Tuesday to join a lawsuit to enforce its authority is that lawmakers still act as though nothing has changed.

Pruitt's own brittle response speaks to that point. "This lawsuit," he said, "is nothing more than an attempt to get unbridled tuition increases. God help our students if they win."

Look across the courtroom, Mr. President. The students are not on your side.

University students and their parents are part of an extraordinary coalition that has put aside institutional rivalries and political differences to draw a line in the eroding educational sand. These mutineers include: a tough-minded chancellor; a university board whose conservative, business-credentialed members were mostly appointed by former Gov. Jeb Bush; 11 university presidents who joined together to support a tuition differential that benefits only three; and student leaders who have publicly endorsed tuition increases as part of an attempt to maintain the integrity of their diplomas.

This a rescue effort, and it can't wait any longer. The universities, having blossomed academically in the 1980s, are now suffering from budgetary neglect. In the past 15 years, they have been at the receiving end of $484-million in appropriations cutbacks. The amount of money spent to educate each student, when controlled for inflation, has dropped by a staggering 20 percent. The flagship University of Florida charges the lowest tuition for schools of its kind in the nation.

The results reveal themselves on every campus. The student-faculty ratio is now the second worst in the nation, with some classes at the University of South Florida held in movie theaters. The instructional cost per degree is the lowest in the nation. Five of the 11 universities rank among the 30 largest in the nation.

"For too long, many of our leaders, often with the best of intentions, have pretended that high quality, broad access and successful degree completion are possible on a shoestring budget," chancellor Mark Rosenburg wrote to the Board of Governors. "Our students deserve the best we can offer. They are not getting it."

The board's decision to freeze enrollment will close the university door on some high school seniors, but is only prudent in the current budgetary climate. After all, the institutions already are footing the bill for 5,627 students for which the Legislature has provided no money, and they were just asked to plan a 4 percent reduction for the fiscal year that began only two weeks ago.

The decision to join the lawsuit filed by former Democratic Gov. Bob Graham and former Republican congressman Lou Frey and to push ahead next spring with a tuition increase in the face of a gubernatorial veto are clearly more provocative. But what is the alternative?

The Legislature, even if it were well-intended, is hardly in a position to pass judgment on a board that was created because lawmakers abolished its predecessor, the Board of Regents. Those lawmakers who refuse to cede any authority may want to look at the states, such as California, Michigan and Minnesota, that already do.

Leaving aside the legal merits of this court challenge, the political reality is that the universities are left with no other viable options. When lawmakers cut state support and the governor rejects tuition increases, where else are university presidents to turn?

Lawmakers who are eager to put down this uprising would do well to look in the mirror. They have fed universities with a steady diet of financial cutbacks and rock-bottom tuitions, leaving them struggling just to keep pace with new enrollment. The historic steps the Board of Governors took last week could be viewed as a form of civil disobedience, except that these rebels make their living and their calling by inspiring young men and women to academic greatness.

If there is a glimmer of hope in this showdown, it might be with a new governor who still is formulating his approach to higher education. Gov. Charlie Crist did veto a 5 percent general tuition increase this year, but he also sat down with university presidents and accepted their pitch for higher tuition at the three major research institutions. He signed that bill pledging a partnership that "will be a powerful force working to improve the quality and status of the State University System."

The students and families who count on Florida's universities deserve more, and Gov. Crist is in a position to join them in this battle. Those in the Legislature who cast university officials as the enemy of university students are engaging in pointless political distortion. The adversary here is not the Board of Governors. It is a legislative apathy that is drowning higher education in cut-rate ambitions.