Update (Monday morning): Sherman Dorn has posted a very reasonable response to this. It represents the sort of conversation that SUS faculty must have if we are to keep the discussion about the future of the system from being totally driven by people who know less about higher education than we do.
The world our students are graduating into is fundamentally different than the one that existed when we graduated a few decades (or more) ago. Florida’s State University System, which was never overfunded, is now on a subsistence budget diet, or worse. The state’s leaders are calling for changes in the system’s priorities. And at least one of the reasons for those calls makes sense – many of our graduates are having trouble finding gainful employment. Many students are choosing career paths that lead to dead ends, and some of those who are choosing paths that make more economic sense are hitting a brick wall because their high school preparation is sorely lacking.
So what should the SUS faculty do?
Certainly not what SUS faculty union President (and UF Philosophy Professor) Tom Auxter did in Friday’s Orlando Sentinel op-ed – complain bitterly about the pressures the system is under and refuse to make any constructive recommendations. Auxter’s target in his piece, the proposal by Governor Scott’s Task Force on Higher Education to charge lower tuition for majors like science and engineering that have better job prospects than some others , may or may not be a great idea. I like it because it’s the first proposal I’ve seen to promote science and engineering careers that has any real substance at all. I’m desperate for anything in this regard, and this is the only plank I see floating around shipwreck that the job market has become. Auxter says the proposal has “little chance of producing additional STEM majors.” I would say instead that it’s far from certain that the differentiated tuition proposal would help. But it’s the only plan on the table.
What could Auxter have suggested? Maybe improving the high school preparation of high school students for science and engineering careers by requiring precalculus, biology, chemistry and physics for admission to the SUS institutions. Maybe he could have talked about how he might improve the preparation of his UF philosophy majors for the job market while preserving the core of their education. The FSU English Department has taken a crack at this with its “Editing, Writing and Media” and “English with an Emphasis in Business” majors. The FSU College of Communication and Information has had tremendous success with its “Information, Communication and Technology” major.
But no. What we got in Auxter’s piece instead was this under the heading “Cherry-picking victims”: “Differentiated tuition will enable politicians to falsely claim they support the universities while actually eviscerating them. Now the governor, who wants to stop funding anthropology, and the new Senate president, who wants to stop funding psychology, have a way to stop funding these ‘frivolous’ degrees.”
Whether you agree with the substance of that assertion or not, it’s clear that calling out the Governor and Senate President like that is not a wise opening move for a negotiation.
The State University System is at a decision point, and the faculty union (called the United Faculty of Florida) should be playing a leading and constructive role in mapping the system’s future. Fulfilling conservative expectations of union obstructionism is the very worst thing to do at this point.