The heart of the problems facing USF and other Florida schools is not underfunding.
That is only a symptom of a much broader disease now plaguing the State University System (SUS): the lack of authority granted to the body charged with overseeing the state’s universities, the Florida Board of Governors.
For decades, the question of who should ultimately govern Florida’s universities has nettled the political powers-that-be in the state’s higher education system.
And after the Board of Regents was dissolved, reinstated and renamed the Board of Governors, the politically fickle Legislature still asserts the right to set the state’s tuition.
The Board of Governors is a limp noodle.
With its recent decision to sue the Legislature for the right to set tuition, the board has tried to give itself a shot of starch. But its need to file a lawsuit at all is perhaps the best testament to its
Florida universities are at the mercy of politically partisan lawmakers who are often short-sighted and more concerned with appeasing their constituents until the next election than putting Florida’s university system in a position for long-term success.
Their political whims keep school administrators perpetually guessing over how much money they will have to work with every year.
A stable state body, at least partially immune to political winds, could keep consistency in the funds, hiking tuition when needed.
Though politics plays a role in appointments, board members are appointed based on their qualifications to make decisions about the future of the state’s universities, unlike legislators. And unlike legislators, the Board of Governors’ sole task is to pilot the state’s higher education system.
States like California have strong, independent governing bodies that operate in the best long-term interests of its universities. It’s no accident that California has a jewel of a university system.
California universities’ governing body can work free of partisan political intrusion most of the time. Its members don’t have to worry about the Legislature giving the stamp of approval every time they want to fund a new building.
They have a contract with the state to provide base increases for budget funding and enrollment growth. Most importantly, they have the ability to set tuition rates.
California’s university administrators need not deal with the Legislature shaving off significant chunks of state money, like the expected 4 percent to 10 percent budget shortfall USF’s decision-makers must contend with this year.
Even if budget cuts come, California’s governing body has the authority to adapt.
Were USF to have the same sort of security, administrators could take more liberties in their commitments. Hiring tenured faculty would be dictated by professors’ merit instead of worries about next year’s funds. To bump base salaries for professors and the University’s beleaguered police force, administrators wouldn’t need a crystal ball.
More importantly, with a steady stream of funding and the ability to make concerted decisions free from interference, the Board of Governors could prevent Florida higher education from sinking further into the rut of inadequacy.
It is difficult to argue that Florida’s universities are healthy. But many diagnose underfunding as the source of its malaise, when what’s really killing it is the inadequacy of its governing institution.
A hardy body to run the state’s universities and implement a long-term plan for its health gives Florida’s university system the best chance to heal and grow.
If legislators and the governor prioritize higher education as highly as they say they do, they should think about giving the Board of Governors the chance to create the sort of university system this state deserves.
David Guidi is senior majoring in mass communications.