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Colleges and universities wary of Texas-style higher ed reforms

By Lynn Hatter


Tallahassee, FL – Governor Rick Scott has been pushing Texas as a model for Florida's university system. The reforms done in Texas include changing the way universities are funded and professors are paid. And Lynn Hatter reports Florida's schools are also looking to Texas and are working to form their own proposals to head off some of the more controversial aspects of the Texas plan from coming to Florida.

At the height of the state's budget-cutting a few years ago several public universities were faced with a dilemma. Cutting programs, faculty and in some cases, enrollment. That was the case at Florida State. FSU's solution? Do all of the above. But when it came to laying off faculty members, the school went a step further it targeted some tenured professors. Florida State's faculty union president is Jack Fiorio. He teaches in the College of Business, and was teaching at the time of the layoffs.

"The arbitrator agreed to us and he ordered the university to reinstate the UFF members who had tenure, and the university, on its own, reinstated the non-UFF members."

One proposal from the Texas model of higher education reform is tenure reform. Under the Texas model, a professor teaches a minimum of three classes with 30 students per semester for at least seven years. In Florida, teachers have to have a combination of teaching and research experience for six years. The tenure issue surfaced last session in the form of a bill that eliminated tenure in Florida's state colleges. It died. But two months ago, it re-surfaced in a state Board of Education meeting. Board members questioned college presidents like Indian River Community College's Ed Massey about their views on tenure.

"My concern is to make sure we're competitive. We're going after Master's degrees, in most cases, Ph.D's. we're having to attract them from other areas of the county, and tenure is major in terms of stability of that in terms of recruitment of good faculty across the country."

Governor Rick Scott has been floating the idea of higher education reform. He says he wants to start a conversation.

"What's the benefit to us as taxpayers, to our students of tenure? How should our professors be measured? I think the student that's putting their time or their family's money into education should be the ones to measure the effectiveness of teachers."

But Florida State University's Jack Fiorio says the analogy of students as customers is flawed.

"They're more like clients. They are people who need some particular treatment, education in particular. But if we leave it to them to decide, that's like saying we should let the patients tell the doctor's what they need. Now, the doctor's aren't always right, but I'd rather take my chances with the doctor's prescription than my own, with no training in medicine whatsoever."

State University System Chancellor Frank Brogan says when it comes to the issue of higher education reform, it's a sensitive subject like walking on a tight-rope.

"The immediate reaction, whether people like this hear it or not, is that there will be some of the professors who won't come to Florida's university if they can't bring their tenure with them, or work in a university where they can ultimately achieve tenure. Some of my friends may say, well, that's too bad. Well, unfortunately, that's going to have a negative impact on our students who need and want the best and brightest faculty members."

But Brogan, who was a university president, says it's a conversation worth having.

"The problem is, once people have tenure no one seems to lose it. I am really interested in examining the ramifications of post-tenure review just to make certain that the person who holds that very important status of tenured professor deserves to keep that status."

Brogan says the post-tenure review process could be strengthened. Many tenured faculty members bring with them a certain level of knowledge that is hard to replace. They also bring research dollars which universities compete over. And one of the side-effects of Texas' tenure reform efforts is uncertainty. And Florida State University President Eric Barron says, one state's uncertainty, is another's opportunity.

"If it's not a national discussion, you'll see a brain drain...There's a group of people who think that Texas makes good hunting ground right now, because the faculty don't know what to expect."

Florida State University has already unveiled a list of its own proposals, like introducing pre- and post-tests into the evaluation process for professors. Now the Florida Board of Governors is trying to get ahead of the conversation. The board oversees the state's 11 public universities. The Board of Governors is deferring to university presidents to come up with a Florida-based solution for higher education reform. Meanwhile, State Education Commissioner Gerard Robinson says, the conversation has already begun at the state college level.

"There's some more immediacy on that side of the fence because there was legislation in the previous session dealing with tenure, which we know across the board is going to be a major issue."

Legislative committees begin meeting the third week of September. At the top of the list of agenda items to deal with: higher education reform.