A flimsy foundation for higher education
Local state senators and an outraged — and very vocal — public managed to ease devastating budget cuts planned for the University of South Florida. But despite that critical accomplishment, the episode exposed Florida's higher education system as a fraud. Key decisions are made without regard for students' welfare, academic achievement or the intelligent use of tax dollars. It's clear university policy is as likely to be guided by political whim as a strategic plan for economic success.To be sure, the lawmakers who managed to trim the proposed USF cuts from $79 million to about $52 million deserve praise. They also managed to save the USF pharmacy program. Sen. Jim Norman spearheaded the effort, but he had plenty of help from Sens. Paula Dockery, Mike Fasano, Arthenia Joyner and others. But it is pathetic that so much energy had to be marshaled to spare USF unfair cuts. The cuts, far deeper than those proposed for other schools, were clearly designed to punish USF for resisting Polk County Sen. JD Alexander's demand that USF's Polytechnic branch campus in Lakeland immediately be made an independent university. The school was held hostage so one parochial lawmaker could get his way. And he did — at least in the Senate, which voted to make Polytechnic Florida's 12th state university. It is a ludicrous decision at a time the Senate is cutting existing universities' funding by $400 million. The vote demolishes any sense of fiscal discipline and thoughtful planning. There has been no cost-benefit study to justify the transition. Students and faculty don't want the change. And immediate independence poses academic challenges that, despite Alexander's assurances, are likely to be formidable. The vote also makes the Board of Governors' higher education oversight irrelevant. The governors, under enormous political pressure, last year agreed to make Polytechnic independent, but also established a number of academic and other benchmarks for the school to reach before it would become a separate institution. This would likely take four or so years. But that conservative approach was too much for Alexander. He wanted his way now. And let's not forget that his colleagues were all too willing to accommodate the powerful chair of the budget committee. The House should show more regard for taxpayers and the university system and reject the Polytechnic scheme. The House's higher education budget, by the way, is far superior. It would cut university funding by a reasonable $138 million. If independence for the school does slip through the House, then Gov. Rick Scott should veto it. How many lawmakers honestly expect a fiscally conservative and academically strong outcome from this Polytechnic venture? We doubt it's more than a few provincial Pollyannas.