Higher Ed in the Spotlight: A Conversation with the Florida Board of Governors Chairman

By Kim Wilmath, Tampa Bay Times, In Print: August 7, 2012

Higher education in Florida has been in the spotlight lately. And so has the governing board that oversees it.

From the creation of a university to a continuing debate about tuition and the value of a college degree, the Florida Board of Governors has had to navigate an intensely political landscape with all eyes watching. And it’s unlikely to end any time soon.

Gov. Rick Scott has made clear his intentions to make the state university system “more efficient,” with a task force he created expected to deliver recommendations on potential higher education reforms later this year.

Lawmakers in Tallahassee also have hinted at coming changes, with incoming Senate President Don Gaetz floating ideas about giving students information about how much degrees are worth and tying state funding to universities’ performance.

Meanwhile, the state is embarking on two university presidential searches at a time when state funding for universities continues to erode.

It seemed like a good time to put Dean Colson, chairman of the Florida Board of Governors, in the hot seat.

The governor’s Blue Ribbon panel on higher education has been discussing potential reforms. What are some things you hope make it into the panel’s recommendations?

We welcome anything that will result in Florida having a stronger, well-coordinated university system. If that means more clarity regarding the Board of Governors’ oversight authority, or greater flexibility regarding tuition, or even a stated commitment on public funding for higher education, the board is pleased that our universities are at the center of this dialogue. It would be very helpful if this task force makes recommendations that one, promote increasing the pre-eminence of our top universities; two, enhance the quality of all universities; and three, create a more predictable funding model.

State higher education leaders repeatedly talk about reaching a tipping point in terms of quality at the state’s public universities as funding dwindles. Do you feel a tipping point is near? How do the universities, which have already tightened their belts considerably, combat that?

While I am not sure someone could clearly identify a hard and fast tipping point for our system, you can look at the data and see the beginning signs of erosion in certain important measures — such as class size, student retention, graduation rates, faculty retention, sponsored research — for some universities.

What’s more important than any arbitrary tipping point is the fact that this gradual chipping away will have a long-term impact on student success and our ability to grow Florida’s knowledge economy. I worry that folks are waiting for some catastrophic avalanche to smother us while ignoring the fact that every year we get covered by another foot of snow that will gradually bury the system.

This year, the Board of Governors approved a wide range of tuition increases at the universities, a move that seems to be an imperfect solution to the growing problem of funding higher education in Florida. How much is higher education in Florida worth?

In building this year’s state budget, the Legislature assumed that all universities would increase tuition by 15 percent, and, at the same time, cut the system’s budget by $300 million. At a time when everyone is looking for a good deal, it makes no sense that Florida has steadily reduced its investment in our universities. You ask “How much is public higher education in Florida worth?” I say it is worth every dollar that we can invest in it.

What is the appropriate amount (or percentage of the whole cost) that a student should pay for his or her higher education?

I don’t have an answer. You would want the state to keep tuition so low it’s competitive, but it doesn’t have to be so cheap at every school. Each university serves a different mission, so we should look to the marketplace to help determine what is “appropriate” for how much a student pays. We shouldn’t be afraid of increasing tuition, as long as we ensure that our universities are operating efficiently and that financial aid opportunities keep pace.

Should universities, where tuition rates hover around $5,000, strive to meet the national average of tuition, now about $8,000?

If the state funding is unavailable, than I’m not opposed to it — as long as we maintain financial aid.

From those tuition issues to the creation of Florida Polytechnic and ongoing problems at Florida A&M University, this year the Board of Governors has been in the spotlight like never before. The board’s authority has been tested by lawmakers and by universities’ leaders and trustees. Does the board need to make its authority more clear? How will it do that?

Absolutely. We need to rebalance the roles of the individual universities’ boards of trustees and the Board of Governors. While I would never advocate for a return to the old days, when a central board micromanaged the universities, we must move away from a system in which universities have little or no accountability to the state, which has invested billions of dollars in creating and operating them. That effort has already begun.

We have created a framework through which universities work with each other and with the board on long-term planning. We have efforts under way to create a systems approach to online learning, to find solutions for facilities funding and to decide how Florida will meet its degree-attainment goals in the coming decades. And we are now working to ensure the Board of Governors plays a role in the selection process for university presidents — not just confirming them at the end of the line.

In all of this, one thing is clear: Just as we expect our universities to work as a system, we must also work with the other public and private educational delivery systems. Likewise, we trust that our elected leaders will work closely with us to ensure all Floridians have access to the higher educational opportunities that are right for them.

Kim Wilmath can be reached at kwilmath@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3337