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Context Florida: Ed Moore: Higher education in Florida, from paradise to Pennsylvania

Friday, February 21, 2014

The departure of Florida State University President Eric Barron to join the Penn State University system was met with much surprise, as was the leaving of former State University System Chancellor Frank Brogan, also recently migrating to Pennsylvania, and before him the move of John Cavanaugh from the University of West Florida to this same northern state. We seem to have a budding employment pipeline that runs from Florida to Pennsylvania.

Most would wonder why in the world Pennsylvania would serve as a magnet for Florida-based talent. Is it the severe budget cuts that have occurred there, leaving state funding for their institutions at “1995 levels,” as one university president described it? Is it the record snowfall and cold weather that are so appealing? Is it the statewide demographic challenges of having fewer college-bound residents — added to the practice of neighboring states offering discounted tuition for Pennsylvania students?

We can agree on none of the above and yet the pipeline exists. Florida is rich in talent and opportunity. As we rise steadily from the damages wrought by a protracted recession, we must recognize the critical importance of higher education to the economic vitality of our state. Florida’s higher education institutions engage in areas beyond the education of students, and the quality of educational offerings are critical ingredients in economic expansion.

Florida is on the rise — one of the nation’s leaders in job growth recovery, declining unemployment numbers, economic expansion, housing growth and a host of indicators. This past year saw record numbers of visitors to our state and state revenue projections indicate robust growth and economic stability. Florida continues to grow as a destination for the relocation of both U.S. and multinational corporations, again adding vitality to the economy while offering opportunity for our higher education institutions.  Our state is moving toward an influx of 1,000 people a day, as we have seen in the past. And certainly our climate cannot be matched by Pennsylvania.

So where are we different? Why do we not seem to have intense competition by experienced and well-known university presidents from other states seeking the helm when we have Florida higher education openings?

There is no simple answer and perception may play a role. Some might decry program cuts over recent years, but that is a red herring, as state budgets around the country constricted due to the recession. Some might point to an unusual governance system, especially if they come from states with strong controls, coordinating boards, and clearly delineated delivery systems. But most would point to two variables that are distinctly different: how higher education is funded and how leadership is recruited.

Pennsylvania has several higher education silos. Frank Brogan left Florida to head one of its systems. Eric Barron is now leaving to head the Penn State University system of 24 campuses and close to 200,000 students. Until recently Brogan’s system had a fixed tuition rate of more than $6,600 for all schools. However, that has changed and they now have adopted a flexible tuition model, driven in part by the students’ academic majors and the location of the institutions. Barron’s new system has astoundingly high in-state tuition, with variations based on both majors and locations. Tuition at Penn State’s main campus for lower division starts at $16,090 per year, with upper division tuition reaching as high as $20,772 for nursing majors. Upper division business, emergency medical services, information sciences and technology, science, and engineering majors have base tuitions of $18,428 per year. The key in both systems is institutional management flexibility. Even with these high rates of tuition, Penn State reported record applications this academic year.

Which brings us to the second variable of difference, recruitment. Notice that Barron had gone through the entire recruitment, interview and hiring process before anyone knew it was occurring. Potential higher education applicants from around the United States point to the Florida sunshine process as a detriment to their considering coming here. Other states exempt applicants from sunshine laws up until a time certain in the process, perhaps when the finalists are announced. Sunshine is important to us in Florida and transparency as well. But perhaps consideration of alternatives in the process and the implications for raising the bar should be food for thought as we move forward.

We are blessed to live in a paradise. However, attracting talent and then potentially giving that talent the ability to model creative options and use market-driven strategies for institutional development should become a part of our statewide discussion.

Ed Moore is president of the Independent Colleges and Universities of Florida, a Tallahassee-based association of 29 private, not-for-profit colleges and universities.

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