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213
By JonMarcus
Tallahassee, Florida
W
hat Floridaneeds right about now is a hurricane.
Not amajor one that hurts anybody, T.K.Wetherell,
president of Florida State University, is saying. Just big
enough that people use their homeowners’ insurance to buy
roofingmaterials, new air conditioners, and other goods.
Wetherell is kidding—more or less. Considering that Florida
has no income tax and depends almost entirely on sales taxes
for government revenues, hurricanes over the last few years have
generated jackpots for the state and, in turn, its higher education
system. Recessions like this one, on the other hand, have proven
unnatural disasters.
Even asWetherell spoke, the legislature, meeting just a few
blocks away, had just sliced another $114million fromFlorida’s
11 public universities, or nearly five percent, to help close a
$2.3 billion budget shortfall.That was on top of a $174million
decrease imposed just a fewmonths before.The state’s budget
has shrunk by $8 billion since last year, and evenmoremoney
is likely to be slashed later this year, by which time revenues are
expected to be another $2.5 billion shy of original projections.
Add to this a history of political pressure that has forced the
universities to open branch campuses all over themap but has
prevented them fromraising tuition above a level that remains
the lowest in the country, and the situation in Floridamay be as
bad as it gets for higher education. All of this is happening in a
state where the population growth, while slowing, remains the
sixth highest in the nation, and at a time when a flood of people
who have been laid off—or expect to be—need career retraining,
putting huge pressure on besieged community colleges.
“It was destined to crash at some point,” saidWetherell, who
has watched the evolution of this problem fromall sides as a
former speaker of the state House of Representatives and former
president of Tallahassee Community College. “It’s the worst
I’ve ever seen inmy tenure in education or politics, and I was
speaker in 1991 and ’92, whichwas the last big one.That was
mild compared to this. All the chickens have come home.”
What they’ve brought with them to FSU is an abrupt $45
millionworth of cuts so far this academic year alone.The
university has eliminated 250 positions and canceled plans to
hire 100 new faculty. Teaching loads for existing faculty have
increased, and at least 62—including some of the brightest stars,
27 of them tenured and 35 on the tenure track—have quit since
August, many for higher-paying jobs at universities withmore
stability. “We lost people we didn’t want to lose,” saidWetherell.
“They’re thinking, ‘I don’t need to put upwith this anymore.’”
Classes are growing larger, andmore of themare being led
by teaching and graduate assistants and adjuncts; the student-
faculty ratio in Florida is more than 31 to 1, compared to the
national average of 25 to 1.The planned completion of a $100
million campaign called Pathways to Excellence to boost
March 2009
Florida’s Unnatural Disaster
The state’s economic bubble has burst, leaving higher education in a double bind
Florida State University’s
national reputation has been
pushed back by at least two
years. Journal subscriptions,
professional memberships
and travel have been
curtailed. So have mail
delivery, trash collection
and landscaping. Even
the university’s National
Magnetic Field Laboratory,
which is the source of
almost as much pride as
its football team, has had
its hours shortened to save
money on utilities.
But perhaps the most
widely felt move is a
dramatic cutback in the
number of freshmen the
university accepts. Florida
State took 5,053 this year,
down from6,326 the year
before, andmight cut
the number further in the fall.This would shut out students
previously considered qualified to join the lucky 39,136 who
have won the privilege of attending this historic red-brick
campus, with its carefully manicured grounds and Spanish
moss draped from the branches of huge old oak trees—
landscaping cutbacks or not—in the slow-paced, southern-
accented state capital.
The University of Florida has also cut
its freshman class, by 1,000 students, and
the University of South Florida has frozen
its enrollment.
And that’s just the beginning. Some
estimates predict that the state’s four-year
universities, which together have 300,000
students, will collectively shrink their
enrollment by as many as 17,000, even
while demand continues to increase.
At both Florida and Florida State this
year, for example, there were more than
20,000 applicants for those coveted, fast-
disappearing places in the freshman class.
To get into the University of Florida last
fall, the average freshman needed an SAT
score of 1293; at Florida State, 1261.The universities are also
losing hard-earnedminority enrollment.The number of black
students in the entering class fell 27 percent at the University of
Florida, 15 percent at FSU, and 23 percent at the University of
Florida’s budget condition is “the worst I’ve seen in my
tenure in education or politics,” says T.K. Wetherell,
president of Florida State University and former
speaker of the Florida House of Representatives.
The Florida Legislature
sliced $114 million—on
top of a $174 million
cut imposed just a few
months before—from
11 public universities,
to help close a $2.3
billion budget shortfall.
Colin Hackley, Black Star, for CrossTalk