Report blasts Fla. colleges; big changes are proposed

Published: Saturday, January 20, 2007 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, January 19, 2007 at 11:38 p.m.
TALLAHASSEE - Florida's public universities have concentrated too much on glitzy research and professional programs while slighting undergraduates, according to a highly critical study that recommends sweeping, but politically unpopular, changes.
The Board of Governors, which oversees Florida's 11 state universities, will begin discussing the study Thursday at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton. A workshop, with an opportunity for public comment, is set for Feb. 27 in Orlando.
The study received negative and positive reaction Friday, but the latter was tempered by memories of failed past reform efforts.
''I'm glad the report came out,'' said Steve Uhlfelder, who chaired the Board of Regents, a precursor to the present board. ''But good luck. I've been there, done that.''
The board raised private money for the study by Stamford, Conn.-based Pappas Consulting Group to help prepare a 50-year blueprint for higher education in Florida.
The report concludes Florida has a disorganized system of undistinguished universities going their own ways. It predicts the system is heading for bankruptcy because of low tuition and the high cost of its popular Bright Futures scholarships and the state's Prepaid Tuition Program.
University of Florida President Bernie Machen said Friday that he agreed with the report's notion that Bright Futures and Florida's prepaid tuition program present potential fiscal problems for the state down the line. Machen is pushing lawmakers to approve an "academic enhancement program" that would bill UF students an additional $1,000 a year, which he says may help UF to grow in a way that doesn't cripple the state. As proposed, the program would not be covered by Bright Futures and hence would not presumably further burden the scholarship system.
"The financial instability of higher ed in Florida due to Bright Futures and Prepaid is something I have been saying for several years," Machen wrote in an e-mail. "The (academic enhancement program) is a small attempt to balance this out, and save those programs. If it does not (pass through the Legislature), I think the consultants' predictions will become reality in a few years."
Janie Fouke, provost at UF, said Thursday that the report ultimately illustrates that the state's system of higher education is overextended.
"The Pappas report clearly identifies examples where institutions may be trying to do something for which they do not have the infrastructure, and that of course comes down to resources," Fouke said.
"At a very high level it tells the state, 'You better make some choices because you can't afford to do what you're doing,' " she said. Mark Rosenberg, chancellor of the State University System, said "everything in the report is accurately portrayed."
''My concern will be how we can get this done over the next couple years and get all the moving parts working together," he said.
The study's key recommendation is to persuade some existing universities, through financial incentives, to join a new subsystem focusing almost entirely on undergraduate education.
At UF, which has an undergraduate population of about 36,000, Machen has made it clear the university's future growth will be in graduate programs and not in undergraduate areas. Graduate and professional students currently comprise about 30 percent of UF's student body.
UF's graduate focus was further evidenced Friday when a private donor gave $30 million to expand graduate programs and facilities in UF's Warrington College of Business. The gift, donated by William R. Hough of St. Petersburg, is the largest ever given to the university and signals the increasing priority that graduate education will have at UF.
The subsystem of bachelor's-degree-producing institutions proposed in the report could also include university branch campuses and community colleges converted to state colleges and private schools that become public or quasi-public. A last resort would be to build new campuses.
''I think it's a bad idea,'' said Community Colleges Chancellor David Armstrong. ''I don't want 28 outstanding community colleges turned into mediocre state colleges.'' Armstrong fears they then would abandon their open-door admissions policy and roles in work force training and adult education.
University of South Florida President Judy Genshaft issued a statement saying she supports keeping her school's existing structure. Tampa-based South Florida has a major branch in St. Petersburg that the study cites as meeting the proposed conversion criteria.
The regents had made a similar attempt to designate certain universities as undergraduate institutions through a tier system in the 1990s that died after drawing opposition. ''I still have bullet wounds from the tier approach,'' Uhlfelder said.
The regents also opposed new medical and law schools as unnecessary and wasteful, a criticism echoed in the Pappas study. The Legislature and then-Gov. Jeb Bush reacted by abolishing the regents, replacing them with a separate board of trustees for each university and creating the new medical and law schools.
Voters in 2002 established the Board of Governors through a citizen initiative. The new board was touted as a way to reduce political meddling.
The report says the most likely candidates for the undergraduate subsystem are the universities of North Florida and West Florida, Gulf Coast University and New College. Next in line would be Florida A&M University and the University of Central Florida.
''Given the history of the last attempt at tiering this one's going to have difficulty,'' said West Florida President John Cavanaugh. His school's boosters were among the most vociferous opponents of the regents' plan that also would have grouped the Pensacola institution among undergraduate-focused universities.
Not all university presidents reacted negatively. ''I think the objective of reining in 11 universities that want to go their own way, cost be damned, is a good one,'' said North Florida President John Delaney. Ed H. Moore, executive director of the Independent Colleges & Universities of Florida, also praised the study for recognizing the importance of private schools. He called it ''the beginning of a meaningful dialogue.''
The consulting company's leader, Alceste T. Pappas, acknowledged the recommendations would be unpopular in a letter accompanying the report.
''We are not naive,'' she wrote, but added that without willingness to make difficult choices ''the emerging master plan will be an interesting academic exercise but little else.''
Sun staff writer Jack Stripling contributed to this report.

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