Scott offers some encouragement to UF, higher education
Published: Tuesday, January 10, 2012 at 8:34 p.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, January 10, 2012 at 8:34 p.m.
TALLAHASSEE — Gov. Rick Scott largely left higher education out of his State of the State address Tuesday but might have eased tensions with state universities by saying he "can't budge" on his proposal to put $1 billion back into education funding and making light of his now-infamous call for fewer anthropology majors.
House Speaker Dean Cannon, on the other hand, raised a new set of concerns by saying he wants to start a dialogue about reforming a higher education system that is "racing toward mediocrity."
For lawmakers representing districts that include the University of Florida, Santa Fe College and the surrounding area, the speeches starting the 2012 legislative session included some good news in another bleak budget year. Sen. Steve Oelrich, a Cross Creek Republican who chairs the Senate Higher Education committee, said area residents should be pleased with Scott's call to increase education funding.
"It's good news for us that he wants to support education, including higher education, and he's still enthusiastic about creating more jobs," he said. "So I look for some good support for the University of Florida and ... higher education in general."
But Oelrich said he's concerned about cuts that would affect Shands at UF, saying he hopes the hospital will be held harmless in the budget. Rep. Chuck Chestnut, D-Gainesville, noted that Scott's call for greater education funding would only replace some of the money cut in last year's budget.
"You take more than a billion last year. Now you get a billion back, so I guess that helps," Chestnut said. "And he cut higher education last year ... I'm glad he caught on, that education is the key to innovation (and) entrepreneurship. I guess it took 12 months to figure out."
Rep. Keith Perry, R-Gainesville, said the state's budget shortfall will make it difficult to find the money to boost education funding. Doing so would mean cutting other programs, he said.
"If we had the $1 billion, I'd say fine, but it depends on where you squeeze that money from," he said. "Because if you're not going to raise taxes and fees, that means something is going to get squeezed."
Scott had made it seem that he was going to push for higher education reforms this session, requesting information from universities that he said he would use in such a plan. He had said repeatedly that the state doesn't need more anthropology majors, in making the point that students should be steered to degrees that land high-tech jobs.
His proposed budget calls for restoring money for K-12 schools but essentially keeps state university budgets flat. On Tuesday, he said that increasing state funding for education is the "single most important decision" that lawmakers can make for the state's future. But he said the efforts on education can't end there, citing a "rich cultural history" surrounding the state's colleges and universities.
"Don't take my word for it. Ask any anthropologist," he said.
Cannon, R-Winter Park, provided more specifics in terms of higher education in his opening speech to House members. He said the state has a higher education system with no clear mission, universities pursuing overlapping agendas despite limited public resources and community colleges rapidly transforming themselves into institutions granting four-year degrees.
He said lawmakers are partly to blame for putting institutions in their districts ahead of the system as a whole, but he said they can play a constructive role in clarifying the situation. Starting Friday when UF President Bernie Machen visits, the House Education Committee will hear from each of the state's 11 university presidents in the coming weeks.
"The purpose of these conversations is to help solve a problem of vital importance for the future prosperity of our state. And so I would ask the members of that committee and all of the members, to please approach those conversations with open ears and open minds," he said. "We have not started down this path with a predetermined outcome in mind, and these discussions may or may not result in legislation this session."
Chestnut said he was "puzzled" by Cannon's comments, and Rep. Elizabeth Porter said they caught her by surprise. Porter, R-Lake City, said she believed the speaker was calling for the system to be a better steward of taxpayer dollars and not offer competing programs.
"Obviously it's a good idea to try and maximize your dollars in one place if you can ... but you also have to remember that Florida is a very long state," she said.
Oelrich said there are some high-demand majors that should be taught at multiple universities, such as teaching and education. But he said he's worried about every state university trying to establish its own dental and medical schools, as well as state colleges getting away from two-year degrees and possibly granting master's degrees.
"I'm worried about mission creep here," he said.
Perry said he hopes Cannon's effort means something good for UF, clarifying the role of each university and ensuring they don't have conflicting goals. As for Scott's previous call for fewer anthropology majors, he said the governor simply was saying that universities should ensure they're producing degrees that are in demand in the job market.
"I don't understand how that's controversial at all," he said.
Chestnut, however, said he didn't appreciate the comment or Scott making light of it in Tuesday's speech.
"I didn't laugh. I didn't think it was funny," Chestnut said.
Contact Nathan Crabbe at 338-3176 or email@example.com. For more stories on the University of Florida, visit www.thecampussun.com.
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