A master's in neglect

A Times Editorial
Published February 17, 2008

The exodus already has begun, and Florida State University geography professor Barney Warf is part of it. "I like Florida and FSU," he told Times higher education reporter Shannon Colavecchio-Van Sickler, "but we feel we're being forced out by a Legislature that values tax cuts over education."

Warf is leaving for the University of Kansas, and his assessment may strike some as harshly political. But it is supported by an inexcusable and unrelenting record of legislative neglect over the past two decades. The wheels are coming off Florida's higher education wagon, and the steady loss of faculty to other states is not even the most alarming signal.

The scariest part is playing out right now in the mailboxes of high school seniors, who are being rejected earlier and more often than in any previous year. Increasingly, this is the message these eager young students receive: Your application for enrollment in a Florida university has been denied.

"We're very proud of the system we have built," Florida International University president Mitch Maidique told House Speaker Marco Rubio last week. "But we view the system facing the biggest threat that it has in its history."

As Colavecchio-Van Sickler painfully documents in today's "For a Better Florida" installment (page 1P), this is not an academic scare tactic. This is the real world in today's Florida public universities, a system with the lowest tuition and the highest student-faculty ratio in the nation, a system that has endured an inflation-adjusted drop in per-student funding from $14,039 to $10,728 in the past 18 years.

Universities are now laying off faculty, courses are being curtailed, and eager young students are being caught in the squeeze. In just the past three years alone, the share of first-college students whose applications are accepted has dropped from 67 percent to 57 percent. This fall, the total 300,000 university system enrollment may shrink by as many as 17,000 students. Translation: More graduating seniors and successful community college students will be denied a seat in their state universities.

This disaster wasn't created overnight, and it won't be solved in a single session of the Legislature. Yet it is not clear whether the 2008 Legislature will even try.

Rubio did invite the 11 public university presidents to the capital last week, and his willingness to listen is commendable. But neither Rubio, nor Senate President Ken Pruitt, nor Gov. Charlie Crist is doing anything tangible to help. Pruitt even had the hubris to ridicule the presidents' offer of a five-year, $1-billion compact between the universities and the Legislature - a process used successfully in California.

"One would assume," Pruitt snapped, "that these are goals they have been pursuing all along with the $3.6-billion they are receiving now."

The multiyear compact is being proposed by the university system Board of Governors and presidents as a way to bind both the universities and the Legislature to certain obligations each year. The intent is to create a predictable stream of revenue for universities while holding them to a rigorous set of performance standards.

This kind of arrangement holds great promise as a method to rebuild university resources, but Pruitt's sneering reaction suggests it has little chance in the Capitol. That's unfortunate.

Tuition increases are another necessary ingredient, but Crist continues to stand in the way. He actually told a reporter last week that universities could hold off on tuition increases if only they would be "more disciplined." Does he think university presidents are hiding extra money under dormitory mattresses?

Last year, Crist signed a bill that allows the three major research universities to raise their tuitions higher than the others. When he did so, he publicly pledged "to find ways to fund state universities that mitigate, if not eliminate, the need for increased tuition revenues." As the 2008 session gets ready to convene, that pledge now rings hollow.

Universities cannot meet the demands of quality and quantity without a genuine financial commitment from lawmakers, and too many of them want simply to throw up their hands and blame the economy. That's disingenuous. This is a crisis of enduring neglect, and this Legislature has an obligation to start turning things around.

If it doesn't, its legacy may become padlocks on the doors of the state's universities below signs that say, "Sorry, we're full."