Updated 11 months ago
The group went to meet Bowles in part because the chamber and the council are pushing to establish a strategic plan for Florida’s economy and view higher education as one of six major economic drivers the state must focus on to remain competitive. Wilson had been impressed with what he’d heard about ties between business and education in North Carolina, and the group wanted to learn more about how that state had integrated its universities and its economy.
Meanwhile, business groups and others were concerned about a proposal that was gathering steam in the Florida Legislature. The president of the Senate, Ken Pruitt, wanted the Legislature to put a constitutional amendment on the ballot proposing that the secretary of the Florida Department of Education again become an elected position. The amendment also would have established that the Legislature would control tuition. The business groups believed rightly that the amendment would further politicize the state’s higher ed system and make it tougher for the state’s board of governors to effectively set higher ed policy. It would also, they believed, enable a governor to abdicate education issues to an elected commissioner — abandoning one of the priorities that the business groups think every governor should share.
At the meeting in Carolina, Wilson says, Bowles strode into the conference room and without much ado told the group that “my office is being flooded with resumes from your best scientists and researchers. We’re going to hire them away from your universities unless you get your act together in Florida. Now, what can I do for you?”
Wilson says the group was stunned. “When you have myself, Marshall Criser and Peter Rummell not knowing what to say ... . It had a big impact,” he says.
The Floridians learned from Bowles that North Carolina sees its universities as economic development engines not only in terms of generating talent but also as the source of research to solve the state’s long-term problems. Florida, meanwhile, “is sending signals to scientists and researchers that you aren’t serious” about either higher education or research, Bowles told them.
In the short term, the meeting was important because it put some backbone into the move to block Pruitt’s amendment. Once back in Florida, Wilson sought and got unanimous approval from the chamber’s board to try to stop the elected-commissioner proposal. For a business group to draw that kind of line in the educational sand was significant: Taking on a sitting Senate president is not something you do without risk to your other legislative priorities, and the move “meant we were willing to lose everything else” last session, Wilson says. Ultimately, the proposal passed the Senate but never came up for a vote in the House.
More broadly, Wilson says, what the group experienced on the trip enhanced the growing sense of solidarity among groups like the Florida Chamber, Council of 100 and Enterprise Florida that fostering a first-rate higher ed system — and the workforce it produces — is essential for the higher-tech, higher-skill economy that’s emerging in Florida. The chamber’s installation of higher ed as one of its six economic drivers signals a commitment to higher education by Florida’s leading business groups that in the past has been neither formal nor consistent.
And so for a while, at least, the schools and the business community may be on the same page. The first major goal in a business-higher ed partnership, of course, should be the creation of a stable fiscal base for our state’s universities — reliable, year-to-year funding that creates a solid foundation for real excellence.
Several years ago, North Carolina adopted a tuition policy that leaves fundamental budgetary authority with the legislature but creates flexibility for the schools in tuition policy. Once the North Carolina General Assembly has set an annual funding level for the system and set tuition, individual schools can ask the state’s Board of Governors to authorize an additional tuition increase of up to 6.5%. The policy establishes that 25% of any money raised by tuition increases must go to need-based aid and another 25% toward keeping faculty salaries in the 85%-range compared to their peers elsewhere. The policy doesn’t make North Carolina immune from complaints about affordability issues, but it has kept tuition reasonable while helping moderate the inevitable ups and downs in legislative appropriations.
The current discussion in the Florida Legislature about a differential tuition plan for Florida’s state schools — with Pruitt and the Chamber on the same side this time —is a good first step. Alone, however, differential tuition won’t be enough. The state must, post-recession, increase its basic level of support, which has fallen drastically in recent years.
The business community is likely to support additional funding but is also likely to demand some additional accountability on the part of the universities: Commitments, for example, to measurable increases in the schools’ output of graduates in fields related to science, technology, engineering, mathematics and medicine.
University presidents may not take to that idea eagerly, and it is at that point that the push to improve Florida’s higher ed system may meet its sternest test. The spirit that must guide and sustain the effort is that, ultimately, Florida must measure its goals and standards not against those of North Carolina or other states, but rather against its own potential for excellence.
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