State universities fear brain drain is setting in

A Cuba expert's plight shows the dilemma.

Published January 23, 2008

TALLAHASSEE - Associate history professor Matt Childs needs to spend another four to six months in Cuba to finish his second book on the country's slave history, but Florida's 2-year-old ban on research travel to the communist country prevents him from going.

He has received just one merit raise in his six years at Florida State University. He's married with one toddler, and another baby and endless bills on the way.

So when the University of South Carolina recently came calling, Childs answered.

Starting in the fall, he will teach and pursue his Cuba research from USC's Columbia campus.

"I have made my name now as a scholar of Cuban history, but I can no longer do my job here if I can't go to Cuba to do research," Childs said. "Also, I just did not see a viable financial future in Florida with a growing family. This is what pushed us out."

State university system leaders fear more will follow, as the budget situation worsens and political tensions between academics and lawmakers rise.

They say Childs and his wife, an elementary school teacher who stands to earn at least 25 percent more in South Carolina, are an example of the brain drain threatening the state's public education system.

Already, Florida's $2-billion budget deficit has the 11 public colleges considering layoffs and program cutbacks - and that has professors thinking twice about their futures here.

"I have had assistant professors e-mail me lately, worried about USF's future," said University of South Florida English professor Sherman Dorn, president of the USF faculty union. "The budget outlook does not look good enough to treat the faculty well for the work they do. So I expect that we will lose a number of faculty in the next couple of years."

He pauses, sighs.

"This budget crisis will put USF back five years."

Florida universities have been in similar straits before, during the recession of the early 1990s. Then, an FSU professor traded her classes of 100 students for classes of less than 20 at the University of Southern California - and at double her FSU salary.

"Now I worry about not only losing the quality of the professors, but also our faculty-student ratio," said Carolyn Roberts, chairwoman of the board that oversees the 11 public universities. "When you look at some of our universities, it's to a critical level already."

The university system in Florida has one of the worst student-faculty ratio in the country: 30 students for every tenured instructor.

A good academic beginning

Childs got his master's degree in Latin American Studies from UCLA in 1994. He completed his Ph.D. in history from the University of Texas in 2001, and that fall he joined the FSU history department.

Florida was an obvious lure for a researcher like Childs, given the proximity to Cuba. And FSU was among a handful of universities known nationwide for its emphasis on Caribbean history, he said.

"This was the top job I found," Childs said.

FSU wanted Childs because of his promise in the field. He had received a prestigious Fulbright-Hays grant to do 14 months' worth of research in 1998 in Cuba - material that proved crucial to finishing his first book on 19th century slavery in Cuba.

That book came out in 2006 as he began his fifth year at FSU, and it was a finalist for a $25,000 national book prize.

After years of study and research, Childs was garnering attention for both himself and FSU.

He should have been celebrating. Instead, he was lamenting passage of a controversial Florida bill that effectively cut him off from Cuba.

Travel ban goes into effect

Cuban-American Rep. David Rivera, R-Miami, sponsored the 2006 travel ban after two former Florida International University employees were accused of being agents of the Cuban government.

The legislation prohibits professors, students and researchers from using money administered by a public university or college - federal, state funds, even private foundation grants - to travel to any country listed as a terrorist state by the State Department. The ban was aimed at Cuba, but the list includes Iran, North Korea, Sudan and Syria.

The American Civil Liberties Union is suing state officials over the law, and the Board of Governors opposes the law's ban on travel covered by private or federal dollars.

The judge has yet to rule on the case. Florida ACLU executive director Howard Simon said if the law stays on the books, Childs won't be the only professor to leave.

"It's not going to end research in any of these countries," Simon said. "It's simply going to drive good professors and private research grants to other states."

FSU officials wanted to keep Childs so much, they offered to match his salary offer from South Carolina in spite of their budget deficit.

But Childs took the South Carolina offer because he said he isn't confident in the future of Florida's education system - particularly the state's support of higher education.

"This law would essentially force me to throw away 15 years of studying Cuba in one way or another," he said. "And the institutional aspirations are very high here among the administrators and faculty, but FSU just does not have the resources to match it.

"I had to go."

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

Florida vs. South Carolina

Average in-state undergraduate tuition and fees: $2,941 vs. $7,337.

State money for higher education: $3.5-billion, up 6.9 percent, vs. $859-million, up 8.8 percent.

Average professor's pay: $98,907 vs. $96,766.

Average associate professor's pay: $68,773 vs. $69,430.

Average statewide SAT: 1473 vs. 1465.

Source: Chronicle of Higher Education