Understanding that a great state requires great universities


Published: Sunday, February 10, 2013 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, February 8, 2013 at 8:52 p.m.

So far, Gov. Rick Scott's ideas for higher education reform have been ripped right out of Texas Gov. Rick Perry's playbook: more STEM and less anthropology, bargain-basement $10,000 degrees, stacking university governing boards to exercise veto power over presidential searches.

But Sunshine State Rick doesn't need Lone Star Rick to envision Florida's next evolution for advanced learning.

Throughout our state's history, politicians of vision and imagination have stepped forward at crucial junctures to help ensure that a growing and modernizing state would have the quality universities and colleges it needs to thrive.

Now that he seems willing to start investing in higher ed again, after years of crippling budget cuts, Scott would do well to look backward before going forward.

Start with the governor who had the coolest name in Florida political history. Napoleon Bonaparte Broward knew that Florida could not prosper on the strength of the few scattered colleges that existed here at the dawn of the 20th century.

So he turned to another visionary, state Rep. Henry Holland Buckman of Jacksonville. And out of the Buckman Act grew Florida's first “university system” — three institutions that would grow up to be Florida, Florida State and FAMU.

To help his vision along, Broward tried to get a property tax levy earmarked as a stable source of revenue for higher education, but the Legislature said no. If he had pulled it off, Scott might not now be complaining about the continually rising cost of tuition.

Then there was Gov. Millard Caldwell, who knew that Florida was woefully unprepared for the thousands of World War II veterans who were coming home, GI Bill in hand, in search of advance learning.

Among other innovations, Caldwell recognized a crying “need for greater stress on graduate work,” and eventually the University of Florida's College of Medicine was born. Caldwell also tried to secure a dedicated revenue source for higher education, in the form of a tax on beer and cigarettes. But of course the Legislature said no.

He was followed by Gov. Fuller Warren, who began to build junior colleges to help supplement Florida's still tiny university system. Warren wanted a 3 percent sales tax to fund them, but guess what?

It was left to LeRoy Collins to make the case that “a statewide system of community colleges would be the quickest way to accommodate the unprecedented demand facing the state.” Florida led America in developing a master plan for statewide access to community colleges.

And don't forget Farris Bryant, who did what his predecessors could not: He actually got a revenue source earmarked for education. Bryant's PECO fund has provided billions of dollars to build and expand schools and campuses.

“There was no way we could handle the mass of people that were coming,” Bryant said of his PECO legacy. “It was like a tidal wave.”

Unfortunately, PECO has since been allowed to go bust, and schools and colleges are now left begging for new facilities.

Finally, Scott might consider Bob Graham's challenge to lawmakers to make a “thrust for greatness” and “raise the universities in Florida into the top quartile in the nation.”Guess how the Legislature responded?

Facing a tough election, Scott has an opportunity to be the latest in a line of thoughtful Florida political leaders who understood that a great state requires great colleges and universities.

“In considering all of the alternatives available which would advance Florida the most and improve opportunities for the public,” said Caldwell, who helped launch Florida's modern university system, “I considered that more progress could be made by improving the educational system than any other.”

Why would he settle for being a Rick Perry wannabe when Scott can aspire to be a Millard Caldwell visionary?

Ron Cunningham is former editorial page editor of The Sun.

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