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It is not surprising that Senate President Ken Pruitt wants to marginalize the appointed board in charge of Florida's public universities. He has been agitating for months against tuition increases, and the Board of Governors has been less than obedient. The more jarring punch in the gut to a beleaguered higher education system is from a polite governor who promised to be an ally but has now told university presidents to quit whining or take a hike.
"We have great universities and their recognition of that fact is important," Gov. Charlie Crist told a Times reporter Tuesday when asked about the presidents' financial worries. "If they're unhappy, maybe they ought to turn the reins over to somebody else."
That is quite a change in tone, and it is tone deaf to the financial crisis facing higher education. Just 13 months ago, Crist told an inaugural audience that "it is our highest calling and our most important responsibility ... to continue on the path of making Florida's education the gold standard." Just eight months ago, he met with the university presidents and pledged to rebuild financial stability: "It's incredibly important for the future of Florida that we have the very best universities that we can provide for the people of our state."
Now those same universities are being forced to lay off hundreds of faculty members and slash enrollment by 17,000 students. Yet Crist seems marooned on Fantasy Island. "My point is, things are pretty good in Florida," he said, describing the current condition of universities. "We have it pretty darn good here."
Actually, no. We have it pretty darn mediocre. The student-faculty ratio is the highest in the nation, with some classes at the University of South Florida held in a nearby movie theater. The rate at which the state produces students with bachelor's degrees is 46th in the nation. Only one of the state's 11 universities ranks among U.S. News & World Report's national top 100.
Not even Pruitt, a persistent critic of the university system Board of Governors, would deny the financial dilemma. Instead, he wants the board to stop raising university tuition lest the increasingly unaffordable Bright Futures Scholarship become even more unaffordable.
In the high-handed manner of previous legislative leaders, Pruitt wants to exact a form of punishment. He would probably abolish the board if he had the power, but a previous House speaker beat him to the punch and led the charge to kill an earlier version. Pruitt can't abolish this new board, because voters in 2002 embedded the Board of Governors in the Constitution.
Pruitt says he wants to ask voters to rein in the board's powers in part because it has meddled in the day-to-day affairs of universities. But the main reason voters approved the board was to try to insulate universities from lawmakers. If he is right that the board should operate at "the 40,000-foot level," then he will need to beam the Legislature to the International Space Station.
The governor and Legislature do face a difficult budget environment this year, which is certain to create some political fissures. But these attempts to intimidate university presidents and appointed board governors are an insulting form of denial. The amount of money the state spends on each university student has dropped by a fourth in the past two decades, and the system is facing the additional loss of hundreds of millions of dollars.
This crisis is no illusion, and many high school seniors are just now opening rejection letters and experiencing the harsh realities. Crist may still want to pretend Florida is the "gold standard," but his remarks fool no one. The university presidents are telling the truth, every dispiriting bit of it. The governor and the Legislature should listen.
[Last modified February 20, 2008, 21:51:11]