Gov. Rick Scott may have one crucial ally in his nascent effort to overhaul higher education in Florida: State University System Chancellor Frank Brogan.
Brogan met with Scott earlier this year to discuss the controversial changes to higher education, which were first championed by Texas Governor and Republican presidential candidate Rick Perry. The idea is to treat universities and colleges more like private businesses, with more scrutiny over professor and university performance.
“We had a great conversation,” Brogan said in an interview with the News Service of Florida. “He’d be the first to tell you he’s not wed to the Texas plan. What he is wed to is the notion that we need to look at those and other possibilities that might create a better system of higher education in the state of Florida.”
The Texas proposal supports the concept of tying state funding to performance, financially rewarding professors based on effectiveness, and using higher education tuition vouchers that can be used toward private schools. It takes many of the concepts being used in K-12 education policy, such as merit pay, and applies them to universities.
Increasingly, some Republican lawmakers and governors are seeing higher education as a system in need of reform, with escalating tuition and costs, much like health care. In Ohio, the Republican governor also pushed for tying state funding to degree production and the number of classes professors teach.
Brogan said he supports “accountability-based funding” for Florida’s state universities. “A greater emphasis on outcomes and incentives to those outcomes is important,” he said. “We should be looking at quality of programs.”
But the Texas plan encountered a lot of resistance from universities there, who were critical of Perry’s attempts to overhaul how higher education functions and is financed. Only a few of the “Seven Solutions” championed by Perry were implemented, most at Texas A&M University, Perry’s alma mater. The issue became so fraught in Texas that a special legislative committee was appointed to study the issue.
In Florida, Scott appears to be taking a more deliberate approach. He discussed the reforms privately with Brogan, as well as Education Commissioner Gerard Robinson, who oversees the college system.
“The Governor has been openly talking about higher education ideas with anybody who wants to talk about it and listen,” said Scott spokesman Lane Wright, though he said formal discussions with legislators had not taken place.
“One of the things I said to the governor is much of what you saw in Texas was that it moved very quickly,” Brogan said.”Here in Florida, we are starting the conversations on some of these very important issues and bringing the people in higher education to the table to have those conversations with us.”
Brogan said he hopes in Florida higher education reform discussions will be “far less problematic.”
Like Perry, Scott has ensured that people he appoints to university governing boards are aware of his interest in changing how higher education functions and is funded. Each college or university in Florida is overseen by a Board of Trustees that approves its budget, new programs, and selects the president of the university.
Scott appoints some, but not all, members of university governing board. Scott appoints most members of the Board of Governors, which oversees all the state universities, and will get the opportunity for the first time next year to appoint new members, with five terms coming to an end.
But many of these newly-appointed members were reluctant to openly discuss higher education reforms. Calls to a half-dozen Scott-appointed board members for interviews were either not returned or the request was declined.
Joseph Gruters, the chairman of the Sarasota County Republican Party and Florida State University trustee, said he supports the governor’s policies on higher education.
“I hope to do everything I can to put them into place at Florida State,” he said. “I am a Scott appointee and he is trying to change the state and is a big believer in higher education and the reforms are needed.”
Much like Texas, some of these proposals may be examined first by the governing boards at universities, and at the Board of Governors, rather than through the Legislature.
Rep. Bill Proctor, R-St. Augustine, said he has not been approached about a legislative solution.
“It would be premature for me to say we should pursue it,” said Proctor, the Chancellor at Flagler College and the head of the House committee on education. But he said there were some parts of the report that he found troubling.
“There are things that are over-simplifications, particularly for a major research university,” Proctor said. He also said while universities adopt many business methods, they have a different focus and purpose than a business.
“They speak of students as customers,” Proctor said. “I reject that.”
State University System spokeswoman Kelly Layman said Brogan has engaged in his own discussions with university presidents to assess their opinions of the Texas proposal.
Brogan said he expects to “immediately” begin a public discussion at an upcoming Board of Governors.”This year you will see some of those things go on top of the table to begin at least conversations about this issues,” he said.
“It’s exciting and I know change always makes some people nervous, but again we should never accept the premise that our state university system is perfect the way it is,” Brogan said.
–Lilly Rockwell, News Service of Florida