Tallahassee Universities Highlight Higher Ed Challenges

Apr 22, 2016

(L-R) Sen. Bill Montford (D-Tallahassee), Sen. Oscar Braynon (D-Miami), Sen. Anitere Flores (R-Miami) and Sen. Joe Negron (R-Stuart).
Credit Nick Evans

Higher education promises to be a central focus for incoming Senate President Joe Negron, and he just completed a four day tour of Florida’s university system.  Every school wants the same things, but the visit to two schools in Tallahassee shows they’re not starting from the same place.

Last Monday afternoon, Sen. Negron (R-Stuart) stepped out of large black touring bus at Florida State University.  He was flanked by a bipartisan delegation of senators, and the lawmakers traded greetings with an old friend—former Republican Senator and current FSU President John Thrasher.

Credit Nick Evans

The first stop was the Criminology Department, and the school’s Dean Tom Blomberg explains the program is a bright spot for one Florida’s two preeminent universities.

“Literally for the last seven years we’ve been the fastest growing major on this campus,” Blomberg bragged to the lawmakers.

Negron arranged this listening tour as a way to hear from universities about what they need.  Not surprisingly most want money—to hire more, and more prestigious, faculty members, and also to fund new facilities.  But Negron’s ‘listening’ tour is also about telling—offering a platform to telegraph his policy priorities to university leaders. 

One of the big ones is job placement.

“So you have 2000 undergraduates?” Negron asked Blomberg.  “Just give me pie chart level—what percentage go on to graduate school, what percentage go on to work in what we would call criminal justice arena, what percentage can’t find jobs?  Tell me the 2000 students about what are they where are they ending up? 

“Probably 80 percent are either going to graduate school, law school—very high percentage,” Blomberg told him.

Across town at Florida A&M University Negron put the same question to pharmacy school Dean Dr. Michael Thompson.

“I’ve heard anecdotally that it’s strong,” Negron told Thompson, “but I just wanted to hear from you.”

“It’s very good,” Thompson assures him, “it’s very good.” 

“Do you have people coming on campus to interview and hire them before they graduate?” Negron asked next.

“Yes, every October we have a career fair—right now we’re having graduation in a couple of weeks and 90 percent of our people are already employed,” Thompson explained.

Sen. Negron and Sen. Lizbeth Benaquisto (R-Ft. Meyers) with Sebrenia Coleman.
Credit Nick Evans

But although FSU and FAMU have programs that rank among the very best in the country, it’s clear there are major disparities when it comes to facilities.  FSU just pulled down the largest private academic donation in state history to break ground on a new school of entrepreneurship.  At FAMU, Negron visited a brand new computer lab, and talked with freshman Sebrenia Coleman while she worked on her physics homework.

“How long would take you to do that work and get correct answers about?” Negron asked her.

“Five minutes—max,” Coleman said.

“Five minutes?” Negron shot back, impressed.  “Are you serious?”

But down the hall in the same building, the school’s Vice President of Research Timothy Moore showed off a much older classroom.  It’s long and narrow with cinderblock walls, stained green carpet and rows of mismatched desks.

“We’re still using this building,” he explained, “and still using these facilities to instruct our students, and it makes it tough.  It makes it tough.”

Credit Nick Evans

  And there are disparities between the schools when it comes to another of Negron’s priorities—four year graduation rates.  FAMU’s most recent figures are just 13 percent—FSU’s is more than four times that.  But Sen. Oscar Braynon (D-Miami) says there’s a very good reason for the difference.  He says household incomes for FSU’s students crack a hundred thousand dollars, but at FAMU it’s just over thirty.

“You know we’re talking about students that when you say they got a job, they’re not getting a job to pay the rent at their house, they’re getting a job sometimes to send money back home,” Braynon said to murmurs of agreement, “and pay the rent at their apartment that they live in in Tallahassee, and possibly buy food.”

“Right?” he asked to general agreement throughout the room.  But it was an environmental science student named Demarcus Robinson put a face on it.

DeMarcus Robinson (far left) speaking to Senators at FAMU
Credit Nick Evans

“So my story is I probably won’t be able to come back next semester being that I have a balance this semester, and I don’t know how to pay for next year,” he told the group.  “So I’ve thought about going back home—I really don’t want to go back home.  I really love being at FAMU—a lot.”

After the meeting Negron pulled Robinson aside.  They spoke for a few moments, exchanged numbers and shook hands.  Then Negron walked over to speak to University president Elmira Magnum.

“You know I have a heart for the young man and want him to be able to complete his university education in a timely manner,” he said.  “So between the university and perhaps anonymous philanthropy that exists, I think there’s a way that we can get him back.  So I’m going to talk with the president about it in more detail, but I’m optimistic that we can work something out.”

“I love that he’s open to help,” Mangum said after the meeting, “and I’m going to take him up on that opportunity as soon as I talk to DeMarcus.  But that’s what we get from people that we meet all the time, a lot of times it’s individual types of support for individual students, but I’ve got 8000 others just like that, and so it’s important to have an institutional-wide solution.”

Negron’s wish list is long and it could be a significant undertaking.  He wants to increase funding for the top level of bright futures, help universities expand or renovate facilities, and provide more money to attract or retain top faculty members. 

And he’s hoping to do all of it without raising tuition.