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Tenure Battle Looms at Florida Universities, Colleges

August 30, 2011 - 6:00pm

After ending teacher tenure and launching performance-based pay programs at Florida's K-12 schools, Gov. Rick Scott is setting his sights on higher education. The challenge to entrenched powers at the ivory tower could make the 2011 Legislature reform fight look like a a dustup in the kindergarten sandbox.

"There's tremendous resistance from faculty, and administrators don't like to take on the faculty. Professors really run the university," said Steve Uhlfelder, who served on the state's Board of Governors from 1994-2006.

But reformers across the country are taking aim at public colleges and universities like never before. As tuition keeps rising and state budgets are squeezed, higher-ed is coming under sharper scrutiny -- fiscally and academically.

Texas, under Gov. Rick Perry, grabbed headlines with a list of "Seven Solutions" that includes measuring teaching efficiency and effectiveness, splitting research and teaching budgets, and requiring evidence of teaching skill for tenure.

Scott views Texas' agenda -- which has yet to be enacted -- as a "jumping off point," says spokesman Lane Wright. Wright said the governor discusses reform ideas with each of his prospective appointees to the Board of Governors.

"Higher education is at a turning point," says Deborrah Brodsky of Florida TaxWatch. "It's not sufficient to offer academics without metrics of performance in place. Taxpayers expect this."

If collegiate operations are indeed at a turning point, Uhlfelder believes it will be like redirecting a large, lumbering ship that's taking on water.

As chairman of the Board of Governors' Performance and Accountability Committee, Uhlfelder argued long and hard for an "academic learning compact" that would measure students' writing and critical thinking skills at entrance and at graduation, and certify grads as proficient in their field of study. The committee approved the compact in concept in 2004, but it was never implemented.

Another proposal would have applied a qualitative rating to collegiate programs, similar to the school grades in Florida's K-12 system. That idea also died at the college quad.

Uhlfelder notes that the most widely used internal and external ratings, including U.S. News' annual report, focus primarily on quantitative indices, such as number of degrees granted, diversity of students, graduation rates, retention rates, cost per student and number of accredited programs.

"But student learning is not measured," Uhlfelder noted.

Brodsky calls performance-based benchmarks the "natural next step."

"[Universities] are huge taxpayer investments. It's important to measure return on investment in new ways."


So far, however, academe remains unmoved. No sitting university president has publicly proposed or supported -- let alone implemented -- substantive performance-based reforms.

"The president will say everything is OK, and quickly add that his people don't get paid enough," Uhlfelder says. Faculty members and their unions reflexively raise the issue of academic freedom whenever they feel their tenure is threatened.

Parroting the passive-aggressive language used by K-12 teacher unions, professors purport to support reform. But -- and there's inevitably a but -- they haven't seen a reform package they like yet. Nor have they come up with one of their own.

Im not against merit pay and Im not against evaluation or holding people to a set of standards, Madelyn Isaacs, former president of the faculty union at Florida Gulf Coast University, told the Fort Myers News-Press recently.

Im not suggesting higher education cant be improved. But I dont think the business model is the way to go. Look at where that got us on Wall Street," Isaacs said.

Uhlfelder would like to see faculty performance reviews conducted at seven-year intervals. Noting that colleges and universities are relying more heavily on part-time adjunct professors to curb costs, he favors higher salaries for higher performers.

Most higher-ed reformers agree that quality-focused reforms are needed most in the social sciences at the undergraduate level.

"The hard sciences are already well-disciplined. The soft sciences like psychology have the greatest need of measurements," Uhlfelder said.

Illustrating the plodding pace of reform efforts, a study conducted by the Pappas Consulting Group for the Board of Governors reported that universities' focus on new research and professional degree programs had turned many undergraduates into second-class citizens.

To date, there has been no official follow-up to the Pappas report, which was submitted in 2007.

Uhlfelder says it's "unfortunate" that the reform debate tends to fracture into "pro-higher ed" and "anti-higher ed" camps.

"It's not anti-university. People just want to make sure the graduates have the skills they need to compete. This is especially key as tuition goes higher," he asserts.

"Universities are living in the dark ages if they don't think more accountability is needed, especially if they expect more money."

Saying he has "many bullet wounds" from his frustrated forays on reform, Uhlfelder said, "I commend the governor for trying, but it's not going to be easy."


In Texas, public support appears to be building for reforming the way public universities are run.

A poll commissioned by the Texas Public Policy Foundation, which proposed the "Seven Solutions," found that voters there believe the state's public colleges and universities can reduce their operating costs while improving instruction.

Eighty percent of respondents said Texas colleges and universities could run more efficiently, while only 5 percent disagreed.

Perry spokeswoman Christine Frazier said the governor wants "accountability, transparency and affordability" improved at Texas' institutions of higher learning and that "the [Seven] Solutions address these goals."

"He's not micromanaging, but it's something for boards to look into," Frazier said.

In Florida, state university system Chancellor Frank Brogan met with Scott earlier this year to bat around reform ideas.

Hed be the first to tell you hes not wed to the Texas plan, Brogan was quoted as saying recently. What he is wed to is the notion that we need to look at those and other possibilities that might create a better system of higher education in the state of Florida.

Brogan, who formerly headed Florida Atlantic University and previously served as the state's K-12 education commissioner, now says he supports accountability-based funding for state universities.

To buttress Scott's efforts, the James Madison Institute, a free-market think tank based in Tallahassee, announced it will release a Florida-specific study on higher-ed reform "later this year."

"There is a lot that Florida can learn from Texas and other reform-minded states before adapting and implementing ideas that are workable and appropriate for Floridas colleges and universities," said Bill Mattox, resident fellow at JMI.

Brodsky remains optimistic about Florida's prospects.

"Leaders are those who will break through the status quo. Leaders who are on top of this will be successful. Florida is ready for change," she said.

And though Uhlfelder likens higher-ed reform to "melting a glacier," he adds hopefully:

"I would be surprised in 10 years if a majority of professors aren't on performance contracts."


Contact Kenric Ward at or at (772) 801-5341.

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