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Five Questions for Marshall Criser

February 13, 2014 - 6:00pm

When former university system Chancellor Frank Brogan announced in August that he was leaving Florida to take a similar position in Pennsylvania, it was not obvious who his successor would be. And it was certainly not clear that a businessman would get the job.

But shortly after Marshall Criser III's name was floated for the position, the president of AT&T in Florida was considered a front-runner. Criser has been a fixture in the state's business and political establishment for years. He began heading up AT&T's presence in Florida in 2005 and had a role in government relations in Florida for the telecom or its state predecessor, BellSouth, off and on since 1999.

Criser had also served as a chairman of the Florida Chamber of Commerce and, at the time of his selection, chaired the Florida Council of 100.

The son of a former University of Florida president, Criser is now charged with overseeing the state's 12 universities, pushing through the Board of Governors' proposed change to the way universities are funded and maintaining the system's quality as Gov. Rick Scott and others seek to keep tuition low.

The News Service of Florida has five questions for Marshall Criser:

Q. You were a fairly successful executive at AT&T. This job is probably a little bit of a pay cut, at least. So what was it that prompted you to try to become chancellor?

CRISER: I guess I would say, one, this is an area that I'm incredibly excited about and I kind of have had a growing excitement about higher education for several years now. I had an opportunity through various chances to work with, for example, the Higher Education Coordinating Council as a trustee at the University of Florida, to learn more about higher education. (I) spent a good bit of energy while I was at the Chamber of Commerce as a board member, and chairman for a while, and also at the Council of 100 as, ultimately, chairman, to work on education issues. ... As I learned more about the opportunity to grow a great higher education system, I became more excited about thinking about doing something new in my own life. I was not looking for this, but when Frank Brogan made an announcement ... it caused me to stop and think about what the chance was and what the opportunity would be to make a change. I did 33 years with a great company, did a lot of exciting things. I, at least, believe Im still young enough to be excited and active in thinking about what I can do with this Board of Governors and with the State University System.

Q. How big of an influence is your father in, first of all, your interest in the position at all and, second of all, how you approach it?

CRISER: Well, there's an obvious parallel. My father actually, 30 years ago, made a decision to leave a corporate law practice and go to the University of Florida as president. That was a big shift in my parents' lives. ... When they announced that decision to pursue that, I didn't understand why they would do something that different. I remember a quote somewhere that says, "It's not whether or not our ideas are crazy, it's whether they're crazy enough," and I think I probably thought that they were living that motto back then.

Thirty years later, in my own life, I understand why they did that, why and how something could become important enough to make a personal commitment to it. And I've told this story a couple of times. People point to my father. The other side of the story is that just a few years ago, my dad and I were -- I was at my parents' house, my father and I were talking about something in education, and my mother came up and her comment was, "Why don't you quit talking about it and get off your duff and do something about it?" And my dad said, "Well, I already have." And I kind of felt like I was left out there hanging a little bit, because I didn't have an answer to that question yet. And that probably planted a seed of thinking about how I could better serve and best serve Florida, and how exciting higher education is as not just an opportunity for us as a state to grow, but how our institutions have an opportunity to place themselves on a national stage, as leaders. And so it's something I've had a growing interest in.

Q. There's been a major push, particularly by Gov. Rick Scott, to kind of try to hold tuition down. Legislative leaders are talking this year about rolling back some of the differential tuition legislation that allows universities to increase tuition by up to 15 percent a year. Does that drive to limit tuition hamper the universities in any way in getting the resources they need to be nationally competitive?

CRISER: I think the conversation always starts with, what's the right amount of financial support for our institutions in order to deliver on their missions? And so, when we start with that and then do a good job of explaining that to our stakeholders, we need to always start the conversation (with), what is the value that we're going to deliver to Florida, and have the conversation with our elected leaders about how investing in the higher education system is to the best benefit of everyone. The issue of tuition, fundamentally, is one that, it really kind of flows from or doesn't start until you've actually had that first discussion around what's the value that we're providing to people.

I think that the Legislature's focus on adjusting the tuition differential cap, at a minimum, has a fundamental value to Florida families because it proposes to re-price the Florida prepaid scholarships. And I think that's another fundamental element that we've got to address in higher education, which is if our families are encouraged to save for education rather than relying on debt at some later point in their lives, we're actually going to benefit not only the students, we're going to benefit our institutions, we're going to benefit the state. And so, all of those factors kind of -- they work together, but it's not about raising tuition. It's about, can we demonstrate the value of investment in higher education, and at the same time, are we being sensitive to Florida families in understanding the economics that they have to deal with and how we can best encourage it? And so, I applaud the proposal which begins with the basic premise that we're going to make prepaid scholarships more affordable for Florida families.

(But if we're going to hold tuition relatively constant -- the governor has said he doesn't want any increases and the Legislature appears to be going along with that, at least for this year -- doesn't that indicate that there's going to have to be some increased support from the Legislature at some point?)

Well, at the same time, the governor also has in his budget a plan or a proposal to fund the board's performance funding model with $40 million of new money. That's a significant investment in higher education. ... I think, actually, the governor began by challenging us to better explain the value of the investment in higher education. This board responded to that with the performance funding model, with its strategic plan that is regularly reviewed by the board, and so, as we have responded to that challenge, and as we have talked about a performance funding model for rewarding university success, then I believe that the proposal is now to fund higher education again in the governor's budget at $40 million of new investment, based on our commitment to him and to the people of Florida that we will invest that money for the best benefit of our students.

Q. How big of a factor should performance be going forward? Is it ever going to be the sole determinant of what universities get or is it always going to be a portion of it?

CRISER: From my business experience, incentive compensation should be big enough to drive behavior. So it doesn't necessarily have to be all of the funding for the universities. It has to be significant enough that we actually start improving the outcomes that we think are important to Florida as a state. And so, one of the elements of the current (proposed) model is to actually match new money with an equal amount of what is called base funding or existing funding that is, in my mind, still Florida's money, not our money. So we have to deserve every penny of it. Some people have talked about that as being skin in the game. I think it is also important to understand that that is the kind of discussion that actually gets people's attention on what these performance metrics are all about, and really energizes a conversation about how we deliver on some fundamental values for Florida's students. ...

We have 10 metrics. I would actually summarize them down by saying: Do our qualified students have access to our universities? At our universities, do our students have the tools and resources they need to succeed? Can they get a degree in a reasonable period of time? And when they get a degree, have we worked with them to connect the dots that that degree leads to a job? Those, to me are basic, fundamental values of higher education, and Florida aspiring to be excellent at those, or at least ensuring that we continue to improve against where we are today, are very fundamental and very important values.

Q. As you speak to legislators are you hearing any concerns about the performance formula, or does it seem to be going over pretty well?

CRISER: I think, generally, the concept, probably across the board, has a great deal of credibility. I will also say that, based on our model, we recognize that we are asking that the priority be on either achieving a level of excellence under these performance criteria or at least showing improvement year over year. That's a different kind of discipline. And I know that each institution has to evaluate that against, I guess, I call it sometimes the ecosystem in which they see that they play. I believe that these metrics are designed in such a way that every university has the opportunity to make decisions and be successful, and to receive the financial recognition that comes with that. I am sure that there will be a time when people will want to say, "But, let's go back to the old way and talk about this project, rather than talk about an outcome." But I think that, before the end of the day is done, we will be able to connect the dots again and show people that funding outcomes also leads to success. I've seen some good ideas out of the universities that I think the only difference would be that the performance funding model would actually give them the resources they need to create the programs that they would want to create, and actually continue to succeed in the future under the model, that they would actually improve access statistics or retention statistics or graduation statistics or employment statistics. And that's just a different mindset. But it is, to me, a very comfortable conversation. I've come from a world that was very competitive, where compensation was designed to encourage success in a competitive world.

And I also sort of look out and say, "We're not in a bubble in Florida." You look at the Stanfords, Harvards and MITs of the world who are using technology, leveraging their resources and reaching beyond their traditional geographic boundaries. I'm kind of excited about the fact that Florida is doing some of those very same things. And this doesn't need to be a West Coast or Northeast discussion. Florida's going to be a player on a national level at how we can best leverage the resources we have in this state to the benefit of our citizens, but maybe also to the benefit of communities beyond our borders at times if that's necessary.

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