Taking the liberal arts out of a state university education?Filed under: Home;
October 11, 2011. Gov. Scott dismisses humanities and questions tenure, “Is it a vital interest of the state to have more anthropologists? I don’t think so.”By Zac Anderson
Future anthropology majors be warned, Gov. Rick Scott does not believe such programs contribute much to Florida’s economy and wants them on the losing end of university funding decisions.
Reforming Florida’s college and university system will be one of Scott’s top priorities when the state Legislature convenes in January, the governor said in an interview Monday with the Herald-Tribune.
Leading Scott’s list of changes: Shifting funding to degrees that have the best job prospects, weeding out unproductive professors and rethinking the system that offers faculty job security.
The governor has been discussing the ideas in interviews across the state as he previews a soon-to be released 2012 legislative agenda. Scott also is paving the way for the changes by making them central to his appointment process for new university board members.
Scott said Monday that he hopes to shift more funding to science, technology, engineering and math departments, the so-called “STEM” disciplines. The big losers: Programs like psychology and anthropology and potentially schools like New College in Sarasota that emphasize a liberal arts curriculum.
“If I’m going to take money from a citizen to put into education then I’m going to take that money to create jobs,” Scott said. “So I want that money to go to degrees where people can get jobs in this state.”
“Is it a vital interest of the state to have more anthropologists? I don’t think so.”
Top leaders in the Republican-controlled Legislature have expressed strong support for university reforms.
Future Senate President Don Gaetz plans to make overhauling the state higher education system one of his signature issues. Gaetz has called Florida a “second tier” state in attracting companies because universities are not producing the right graduates.
With lawmakers lining up behind Scott’s ideas, major changes appear likely.
But the proposals are being met with skepticism from college and university leaders who worry that the reputation of Florida schools will suffer and that the state will have a hard time attracting top faculty and students if certain programs are being slashed and professors feel under attack.
“It’s sheer and utter nonsense,” said former University of Florida President Charles E. Young. “They have a total lack of understanding about what a university is and what universities do.”
Scott said that Rick Perry — the Texas governor and Republican presidential candidate — planted higher education reform in the Florida governor’s mind when the two met shortly after Scott’s election.
“He said, ‘I’ve got this plan in Texas, you ought to look at it,’” Scott recalled.
Perry was referring to the “Seven Breakthrough Solutions” policy paper created by Texas businessman Jeff Sandefer. A successful entrepreneur and energy investor, Sandefer also taught business classes part-time at the University of Texas until the school began hiring more full-time tenured professors.
Sandefer became an outspoken critic of state universities, particularly the system for promoting faculty. Tenure, critics say, places too much emphasis on research. To be promoted, faculty must publish original work. As a result, they spend less time in the classroom and often delegate teaching to graduate students.
The Seven Solutions program boosts rewards for the best teachers and advocates tougher faculty evaluations that incorporate more student input.
“There really needs to be a refocus on teaching and the students in front of you,” said Naomi Schaefer Riley, a former Wall Street Journal editorial writer and the author of a new book on higher education reform. “They use the people at the bottom to do the teaching.”
Riley wants tenure abolished.
Scott said Monday that he has been discussing the merits of tenure and other aspects of the Seven Solutions with all of his university appointees.
But even some top Republican lawmakers are wary of ending the system. Both the House speaker and the chairman of a higher education subcommittee have noted in recent weeks that tenure is employed at universities nationwide. They questioned whether Florida would be at a disadvantage without it.
Riley said top professors produce the kind of work that ensures job security, making tenure irrelevant.
But many university leaders disagree.
“I haven’t heard one university president say we have to do something about tenure or go after our faculty because they know the reputation of their institutions is based on their faculty,” said former University of South Florida President Betty Castor.
Other aspects of the Seven Solutions could be just as controversial.
In an effort to compare faculty productivity, Texas A&M University recently published a spreadsheet highlighting each professor’s teaching loads and research dollars. The spreadsheet drew intense criticism and was quickly removed from the university’s Web site.
But Scott said he is determined to create tougher accountability measures for Florida’s universities.
“We need to have higher expectations,” he said. “We’ve got to dramatically raise the bar.”
The governor casts the issue as an economic imperative, particularly the notion of tailoring university programs to the job market.
While much of Scott’s higher education agenda is borrowed from Texas, his proposal to emphasize science and technology over liberal arts has been kicked around in Florida for years with limited success.
In 2010, lawmakers used federal stimulus money to increase STEM funding by $12 million. Sarasota’s New College used the money for a science program studying local watersheds.
Earlier this year, a proposal by the state Board of Governors — which sets higher education policy — to substantially boost STEM funding was ignored by lawmakers who wanted the money to come from reductions to other programs like psychology.
Led by Gaetz, lawmakers began questioning the number of psychology graduates, the most popular degree program at some state universities.
A group of psychology professors countered with a white paper noting that Florida is hardly unique.
Scott wants universities to provide students with information on average salaries for each degree program.
The median income nationwide for someone with a bachelor’s degree in psychology was $30,000 in 2006, according to the white paper.
The governor also said he hopes to come up with other ways to incentivize STEM programs and discourage liberal arts majors. But increasing overall college and university funding seems unlikely with economists predicting another budget deficit of up to $2 billion this year.
Any increased STEM funding would likely have to come from other programs, something university leaders oppose. “We do not want to, and don’t intend to, rob Peter to pay Paul,” Board of Governors spokeswoman Kelly Layman said Monday.
Scott noted that only 20 percent of Florida students are STEM majors. “We’re not going to 100 percent but if we’re going to compete in the world economy we have got to get better,” he said.
Higher education appropriations have fallen by 20 percent in Florida since 2005, even as enrollment rose by 92,000 students, according to a study by the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association.
Tuition increases have offset some of the cuts, but Castor believes state leaders need to make higher education a larger budget priority.
“We’re not a communist country, there’s still going to be choice,” she said. “You can put a lot more money into (STEM) but if you do that at the expense of the liberal arts, I would fear we’re not educating students the way they should be educated.”
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