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Uhlfelder: university efficiency a ‘disgrace’

Late Tuesday evening, four USF students sitting outside the Phyllis P. Marshall Center bemoan what one of them, junior Brandon Moss, called a loss of freedom.

As third-year college students, Moss told his friends, they are responsible adults and should be treated as such. But, they claim, Florida’s Board of Governors, which oversees the state’s 11 public universities, is trying to take some of that freedom away.

The students were responding to claims by BOG member Steve Uhfelder that the campuses of state universities are underutilized on Fridays and Saturdays. Uhfelder, who could not be reached for comment Tuesday, told the St. Pete Times that the empty classrooms, not just at USF but also across the state, are a “disgrace.”

“The last time I checked, Friday was still in the work week,” Uhlfelder told the Times.

But Erika McDaniel, one of the four students discussing the issue Tuesday night, said students need the extended weekend.

McDaniel, a Winter Haven resident who said she drives nearly an hour three days a week to attend USF during the fall and spring semesters, said that not only could she not afford to drive to Tampa four or five days each week but also that such frequent trips would be exhausting when taking into account time spent at home studying and working to pay for school.

“I don’t think this is practical at a school that is known as a commuter university,” she said. “For some people it is just easier to load up two or three days out of the week with all your classes. Sure, having a three day weekend is nice but not everyone avoids Friday classes just because they want an extra long break each week.”

Uhlfelder acknowledged in the Times story that several people, including both students and faculty, would need an incentive to spend part of their weekends on campus. He told the Times that two possible solutions involve offering students discounted tuition for classes at off-peak times and paying professors more to teach on Saturdays.

Roy Weatherford, president of the USF faculty union, praised Uhlfelder’s apparent commitment to providing everyone with benefits for coming to campus on off-peak days.

“I think (tuition discounts and higher faculty pay on off-peak days) would be a good idea, and I commend Mr. Uhlfelder for it. I can’t remember agreeing with him so much in the past 10 years,” Weatherford said. “The social disadvantage of this policy, however, is that once again it favors the well-to-do. When student behavior is determined by economic factors, it is almost always discovered to have a negative effect.”

Moss, the most vocal of the small student group, argued that it would be difficult for teachers to keep students’ attention or attendance with the weekend looming.

Moss, who lives in St. Petersburg, said in six semesters, including two summers, at USF, he has taken one Friday class. He said he received a poor grade in the class because he often had difficulty forcing himself to go to class while his friends were beginning the weekend early.

Weatherford also acknowledged this potential problem but said the solution lies in following through on the planned incentives for students to take Friday and weekend classes.

“Those of us who teach afternoon classes to students with the metabolism of a morning person already have those problems, and the same is true in reverse,” he said. “I don’t think that it is inherently impossible to teach a good class Friday, but I do think it is more difficult to make it attractive to students. I also believe the same general principal should apply to our students that I wish to apply to our faculty, namely that, if we wish for the students to behave in a certain way, we should give them desirable incentive for doing so, not order them to do something against their will and be detrimental to student moral.”

Uhlfelder also proposed a more drastic solution: denying schools money for new buildings if it is determined that they are not using existing classrooms efficiently. He said state universities and community colleges spend several hundred of million dollars annually on construction, with about 10 percent of that going towards new classrooms specifically.

Uhlfelder said at a BOG meeting in May that classroom efficiency should be defined as using at least 70 percent of classrooms Monday through Friday and at least 15 percent on Saturdays.

USF’s Friday classroom usage peaks at around 11 a.m., at approximately 30 percent.

Moss, however, doesn’t think efficiency should be the university’s goal.

“If I am most ready and able to learn on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, but it is most economical for USF to have me in class on Friday, who wins that conflict? USF will, but for the wrong reason,” Moss said.

Weatherford disagrees, however, saying efficiency should play a significant role in university decision-making — just not too significant.

“I believe it is a value. It does serve an economic function of making a good university education more affordable for students and the taxpayers of Florida,” he said. “The important argument, though, is that a university should never be driven by economic factors. If you give people incentive for being here, educational value” will not necessarily be lost.