University chiefs likely to lead charge in reforming Fla. higher ed

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Tuesday, October 04, 2011 at 11:31 am | More from The Florida Independent
Though the specifics of what Florida higher education reforms might look like remains unclear, it is increasingly important to examine who might be inspiring them. While Gov. Rick Scott has said that he might take inspiration from Texas, others say that is only one piece of the puzzle.

In July, it became clear that Scott had begun quietly promoting higher ed reforms like the ones currently underway in Texas — changes that aim to overhaul professor tenure, create larger class sizes and emphasize teaching over research.

In a recent piece published in the Daytona Beach News-Journal, Scott’s press secretary, Lane Wright, says the governor “just wants to start the conversation” about higher ed reforms, and isn’t yet set on any specific set of proposals, whether they stem from Texas or not.

In Texas, the key player in education change has been the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a group that has been championing that state’s so-called “Breakthrough Solutions” for higher education — proposals written by Austin, Texas, oilman Jeff Sandefer. There aren’t any well-known Florida groups like the Public Policy Foundation yet, but the key players in Sunshine State higher ed change just might turn out to be those already involved in state universities — namely, university presidents themselves.

In an interview with the News-Journal, Florida State University President Eric Barron said that he had drawn up his own list of higher ed proposals, some of which are similar to Texas’ but “in a more comprehensive way to ensure we are standing up and saying we want to be held accountable.”

“I think that a lot of people agree that we can do better on some of these things,” said Barron, who also remarked that “the time for increased accountability for colleges and universities is undoubtedly here.”

The Koch Industries logo (Pic via suraen.files.wordpress.com)

Barron came under fire in May for FSU’s alliance with the influential, libertarian-minded billionaire Koch brothers, whose foundation has a hand in choosing economics faculty members at the public university. The Koch brothers, who rank among the most high-profile donors to right-wing causes in the country, are likely fans of higher ed reforms.

Listed on the agenda (.pdf) of a secret June 2010 meeting hosted by Koch Industries in Aspen, Colo., was a panel titled “Higher Education,” which aimed to examine the “leveraged opportunities [that] exist on campuses now that make a real difference in advancing liberty.” Scott attended this year’s secret meeting in Vail, Colo.

The state university system’s Board of Governors recently formed a work group comprised of various university presidents and a faculty representative, in order to discuss reforms like those in Texas and other states, and identify useful proposals for Florida.

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