ORLANDO, Fla., June 22, 2012
Brandon Larrabee, The News Service of Florida
A splintered Florida Board of Governors approved a variety of tuition increases for 11 of the state's 12 public universities following a chaotic meeting that featured changing votes and shifting coalitions.
Only four universities -- Florida Atlantic University, Florida International University, New College and the University of Central Florida -- won approval for the full 15 percent allowed under the state's "differential tuition" law; eight had originally requested it. The University of West Florida got 14 percent; Florida State University and the University of North Florida won approval for 13 percent; and Florida A&M University got 12 percent.
Florida Gulf Coast University, which requested 14 percent, also got 12 percent. The University of South Florida got the 11 percent increase it requested, while the University of Florida got the 9 percent boost it asked for. The new Florida Polytechnic University did not make a tuition request.
Board members spent about two hours debating the changes, and some university presidents were left wondering whether to use a so-far unused appeals process to try to get the board to change its mind.
The voting showed the extent and limit of Gov. Rick Scott's influence on the board. Scott has long said he wants to hold tuition down. While the increases were less than what several universities asked for, Scott issued a statement afterward saying he was disappointed with the result.
"It is my priority to keep the cost of living low for Floridians and have an education system that produces the most competitive, highly skilled workforce in the world," Scott said. "And I expect our universities and the Board of Governors to seek those same goals."
Scott has the power to appoint or reappoint most of the members of the board.
Board Chairman Dean Colson, though, said he believed Scott's concerns clearly resonated with some board members. No university had ever lost a differential request before Thursday.
"You're crazy not to listen to what your governor has to say," Colson said. "He's the governor."
Aside from some board members raising concerns about the increases at a meeting of the board's budget committee earlier Thursday, the first sign of trouble for the tuition requests came when the panel took up the 15 percent proposal for the University of Central Florida, where this week's meeting was held.
The original 15 percent request failed on an 8-8 tie vote. An offer of 9 percent by some board members pushing for lower rates went down. It was defeated by a coalition that included board members supporting higher tuition, those opposed to any increase and others who were swing votes.
Proposals of 13.5 percent and 12 percent were defeated largely by those favoring lower rates.
What followed was a cacophony of sometimes contradictory votes -- the board finally moved away from voting on UCF's increase to take up some less controversial requests, only to eventually grant UCF the full 15 percent. Board member Norman Tripp changed his vote on at least two of the universities' requests.
One of Tripp's conversions came after a visibly exasperated FSU President Eric Barron lashed out at the board for seeming to favor smaller institutions, who often have more limited reserves, over highly-regarded research institutions that could be the key to the state's drive to increase graduations in science, technology, engineering and math -- another one of Scott's stated goals.
"That's an amazing message to the faculty and the students -- that the ranked universities in this state and the research universities in this state will get the least resources [under the board's program]," Barron said.
Barron said he hadn't decided yet whether he would appeal the decision. Universities have until June 26 to decide whether to appeal.
Board members opposed to the larger increases said they were concerned about the effects of boosting tuition during a down economy, especially after three years of across-the-board 15 percent increases.
"Today is about a family that has been going through a recession, and we have continuously been beating on them and giving them a 15 percent increase," said Vice Chairman Mori Hosseini.
Others countered that the increases were necessary to offset years of lagging state funding for higher education, including a $300 million reduction for this year that lawmakers have said will be a one-time cut.
And they said that rejecting the increases could lead to reductions in a number of courses that students need to graduate -- causing those students to stay in school longer.
"The worst thing we can do is not have adjunct professors, not have professors, not have associate professors, and not have course sections, so these students can't graduate," said board member Tico Perez. "That's a tuition increase -- half a year out of their life, a year out of their life, a year out of the workforce."