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Higher education reform proposals raise concerns at USF

Gov. Rick Scott’s proposed reforms to higher education have some University officials scratching their heads.

According to an August article in the Orlando Sentinel, Scott, who has spoken with future Board of Trustees appointees about new measures, hopes to place limits on tenures and create a merit pay-based system for all faculty.

However, University officials say they already offer a merit pay-based system.

“They present ideas like they’re novel and never been heard before, but we’ve been doing this for years, which sort of suggests that a lot of the discussion going on is by people who don’t really understand what’s going on in the academic environment,” Senior Vice Provost Dwayne Smith said. “It’s based on misconceptions.”

While the initiative to limit tenure, or make the time faculty and staff can be protected from being fired finite, mirrors the reforms Scott brought about for K-12 education earlier this year, Smith said the same model would be detrimental to the University setup.

“If there ever is a serious attempt to undermine tenure, it would utterly and absolutely derail any ambition the University has to become a nationally or globally prominent research institution,” he said. “I’m absolutely dead serious about that.”

Currently, when a USF employee is granted tenure, they can’t be fired by the University and are guaranteed certain benefits like health insurance and retirement benefits.

Smith said limiting tenure would hinder USF’s ability to attract faculty who in recent years have been moving to other states with better faculty compensation.

“The institution of tenure is very much a part of the academic culture,” he said. “The absence of it would absolutely undermine the University’s ability to be competitive in attracting the best and brightest faculty at the University of South Florida.”

Smith said tenured faculty face rigorous annual evaluations and all pay is currently merit based, as determined by a formula in USF’s collective bargaining agreement that measures teaching, research and service components.

USF’s chapter of the United Faculty of Florida (UFF) spokesman Gregory McColm said Scott’s attempts to run education like a business are less than desirable.

“Given his track record (with the Hospital Corporation of America), we’re sort of suspicious,” he said.

Presidential candidate and Texas Gov. Rick Perry implemented the same reforms proposed by Scott in the Texas State University System.

“The talk of reform is being parroted a lot,” McColm said. “By no means is it true that Mr. Scott and Mr. Perry are the only ones making changes to education. They’re just the ones getting press coverage.”

McColm said while the union and administration often “butt heads” with regard to faculty compensation, Scott’s desire to reform the pay raises needs more explanation.

“There’s a strong difference of opinion between the union and the administration in how to do that,” he said. “The union has pushed for compensation based on market equity statutes. The administration would like to go around giving discretionary raises to who they feel deserve it. We think it should be tweaked this way, they think it should be tweaked that way … but at the centerpiece, it’s a merit pay-based system.”

McColm said USF is in favor of merit-based raises, but that is not what Scott, who has not elaborated on his intentions, plans to do.

“He’s not interested in what we’re doing,” he said. “He wants … well, I’m not exactly sure what he wants. He is not talking about funding the merit-pay raise system.”

Smith said it is unclear how Scott’s proposed suggestions could come into effect.

“It’s a very gray area of the law,” he said. “All Florida institutions operate under a collective bargaining agreement. The extent to which a recently passed state law could undermine existing collective bargaining rights is gray. If there was an attempt by the governor to immediately undermine tenure, it would be subject to a lot of legal challenges.”

Director of Government Relations for the USF System Mark Walsh, who spent last spring working with legislators in Tallahassee, said his department would advocate the stance of the University before legislation was passed.

“USF Government Relations will advocate for the position of the Provost on this or any other similar issue,” he wrote in an email to The Oracle, but would not give further comment.