Public comment urged to revamp state universities

Published: Thursday, January 25, 2007 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, January 24, 2007 at 11:53 p.m.

BOCA RATON — The Board of Governors of Florida's 11 state universities responded Wednesday to criticism that its institutions are disconnected and not focused enough on undergraduate education by announcing it will seek public comments as it revamps programs.

The initiative, called Forward By Design, allows for the public to submit comments and suggestions by e-mail, a blog and a survey on the board's Web site.

A workshop, with an opportunity for public comment, is also set for Feb. 27 in Orlando.

"The future of our state is tied to the future of our universities," State University System Chancellor Mark Rosenberg said in a statement Wednesday. "As we draft the plan for higher education it is vitally important that we make sure we hear from as many interested parties as possible."

The highly critical study, paid for by the board with private money and released Friday, was conducted by Stamford, Conn.-based Pappas Consulting Group to help prepare a blueprint for higher education in Florida.

The study concluded that Florida has a disorganized system of undistinguished universities that are not working together. It also predicted the system was headed for bankruptcy because of low tuition and the high cost of scholarships and the state's Prepaid Tuition Program.

Rosenberg agreed with the report's findings and said he hoped the initiative to garner public comment would help hasten efforts to revamp the system.

"It is imperative that we have a vision and a plan for the next 30 years," Rosenberg told the board during a meeting Wednesday at Florida Atlantic University.

The study recommended persuading some existing universities, through financial incentives, to join a new subsystem focusing almost entirely on undergraduate education, including converting branch campuses and community colleges into separate state institutions.

"This is a blueprint," Alceste Pappas, of Pappas Consulting, told the board, acknowledging that "there are statements in this report that are not going to make everybody happy."

However, Pappas added: "The state of Florida deserves better than it has now."

The report received negative and positive reaction when it was made public Friday.

Community Colleges Chancellor David Armstrong called it a "bad idea," noting that he didn't want to see "outstanding community colleges turned into mediocre state colleges."

North Florida President John Delaney said Friday he agreed with the report's objective of reining in the disconnected universities into one unified system.

Many took issue Wednesday with the idea of converting existing institutions into state universities but the board assured them it would be an optional decision.

"All of us support an emphasis on undergraduate studies," said Daniel Holsenbeck, a senior counsel at the University of Central Florida. However, Holsenbeck noted that his school did not want to lose its emphasis on prominent graduate programs.

Board Vice Chair Sheila McDevitt cautioned the group that "this is just one day in many more conversations."

"I really wish that everybody in the system could get comfortable so that we can have a conversation and together come to a conclusion that makes sense," McDevitt said.

The Board of Regents, a precursor to the present board, made a similar attempt to designate certain universities as undergraduate institutions in the 1990s but the idea died after drawing opposition.

"We know our university system is going to grow," said Board Chair Carolyn Roberts, noting that the 11 institutions have added 100,000 students in the last decade and it expects to see an additional 50,000 students by 2013. "The question is, will that growth be by design or by default? Planning for growth by design is the focus of this initiative."

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