THE NEWS SERVICE OF FLORIDA: Governor Scott promotes controversial education reforms

Jul 26, 2011

The following article was published by THE NEWS SERVICE OF FLORIDA on July 26, 2011:

Scott promotes controversial education reforms

By Lilly Rockwell

THE CAPITAL, TALLAHASSEE – Controversial changes that have rocked Texas’ higher education system may be coming to Florida.

Gov. Rick Scott has begun discreetly promoting the same changes to the higher education system that Texas Gov. Rick Perry has championed. The proposals include some of the same reforms pushed by conservatives in K-12 schools: merit pay for professors, tenure reform, and generally a much greater emphasis on measurement of whether professors are turning out students that meet certain goals.

The attempt in Texas has caused something of an identity crisis in that state’s higher education community, with opponents saying what needs to be reformed is Perry’s control over university policies.

Scott told the News Service of Florida on Tuesday that he has discussed the Texas reforms with his appointees to university and college governing boards in an effort to line up support for a nascent campaign to dramatically change how universities and colleges are funded, overhaul professor tenure, emphasize teaching over research, and give students more influence.

An admirer of Texas, Scott has developed a friendly relationship with Perry, who is flirting with the idea of seeking the Republican nomination for President in 2012. Texas is regularly praised for its business-friendly climate and has weathered the economic recession better than most states.

But Perry’s higher education reform efforts were not welcomed with open arms.

Perry’s proposal tries to mold state universities into operating more like businesses, treating students more like customers, and universities like companies that offer a product – a degree.

The suggested changes include, in addition to professor merit pay, a greater emphasis on student evaluations and teaching in awarding tenure, abandoning the traditional accreditation system, and giving more state funding directly to students. Many of these ideas are outlined in a report called “Seven Breakthrough Solutions,” put out by a Perry donor named Jeff Sandefer and the right-leaning Texas Public Policy Foundation in 2008.

Perry also has called for a tuition freeze and the development of a $10,000 bachelor’s degree.

“One of the things I really like about what he has in there is the fact that we should be measuring our professors,” Scott said in an interview with the News Service of Florida on Tuesday. “I believe students ought to be measuring the effectiveness of our professors because ultimately, it is the family’s money paying for this. We really ought to have a measurement system (that is) student-centered.”

Scott also praised the idea of merit pay and putting more money in the hands of students.

“Our higher education system should work for the benefit of the students,” Scott said.

In Texas, Perry’s reforms have encountered pointed resistance from most universities.

Perry’s office did not immediately return a request for comment on Tuesday.

Gerry Griffin, a former member of the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board and former director of NASA’s Johnson Space Center, is part of a group opposing Perry’s changes.

Griffin, an alumnus of Texas A&M University, said the group is concerned “and trying to take the stance that we are against these kinds of reforms that have been shoved on our universities.”

The group, the Texas Coalition for Excellence in Higher Education, includes former members of university governing boards, former university presidents, and prominent alumni and business leaders, such as Gary Kelly, CEO of Southwest Airlines.

Griffin said the solutions are too simplistic.

“Universities are not a factory,” he said.

Top-tier research institutions such as Texas A&M University and the University of Texas would become “diploma mills” if the full extent of the reforms were implemented, Griffin added.

“At the end of the day, the reformers that started down this path only thought of numbers,” Griffin said. “They didn’t think about the quality of education.”

At Texas A&M, one effort to put into practice the Perry reforms involved a publicly available spreadsheet rating how much money each faculty member brought in to the university. It was so controversial it was taken down. The university also undertook an effort to pay faculty based on evaluations, but that was also cancelled, noted the Texas Tribune.

In Florida, groups like the United Faculty of Florida, which represents 23,000 faculty members and graduate assistants in the state, are alarmed by the reform proposals in Texas.

Tom Auxter, the statewide president for UFF and a philosophy professor at the University of Florida cautioned against trying to make universities run like a business.

“You can’t reduce higher education to a commercial model where you have products and customers,” he said. “It’s not just a business, it is a profession and it is a future for students.”

Auxter said there already is merit pay for university faculty and an extensive peer review system that is designed to weed out ineffective teachers and researchers. Students, too, weigh in through teacher evaluations.

“We have systems for recognizing merit already,” Auxter said.

Though many of Perry’s reforms require legislative approval, he has gained allies by appointing to boards that govern universities in Texas people who support his reforms.

Scott appears to be taking a page out of that part of Perry’s playbook. Scott said when he interviews people for positions on a university or college’s board of trustees, he gives them a copy of “Seven Breakthrough Solutions.”

“I send them a copy of (the proposals) and say ‘What do you think?’ ” Scott said.

In Florida, Scott appoints some, but not all, members of the boards of trustees for each university. He also selects all the appointed members of the Board of Governors, which oversees all Florida public universities. There are three members of the Board of Governors who are not appointed. They include the Commissioner of Education, a representative of the Florida Student Association, and a faculty member.

Scott acknowledged that Florida politics are different than Texas politics and said he was interested in merely raising the issues. “By sending a copy of that to them, it starts the conversation,” Scott said. Ultimately, he wants to “understand how people think if I’m going to put them on the board of a university.”

Scott’s interest in higher education reforms might come as surprise to some. In speeches and in media interviews, he focuses on his pledge to create jobs and stimulate Florida’s economy, rarely straying into higher education topics.

But Scott said he eventually plans to lobby more aggressively for the changes. First, he is soliciting feedback from universities. “If somebody has a better idea, I’d like to understand those ideas first,” Scott said.

It remains to be seen whether Scott’s burgeoning plan to change higher education in Florida will be received more warmly than in Texas. Two lawmakers in charge of crafting higher education policy in Florida said Tuesday they had not even spoken to anyone in Scott’s office about the reforms.

But Rep. Bill Proctor, R-St. Augustine, who is in charge of the House Education Committee, said on his own he is researching what Perry is trying to accomplish in Texas and just this week asked his staff to dig up more information.

If this past legislative session is any indication, Florida colleges and universities may be resistant to tinkering from outsiders. A proposal briefly floated by Rep. Erik Fresen, R-Miami, that would have eliminated tenure at state and community colleges was killed after the Florida College System voted to oppose it.