Atwater Pushes Universities to Streamline Offerings

By: Kenric Ward | Posted: April 11, 2012 3:55 AM
Jeff Atwater

CFO Jeff Atwater | Sunshine State News Archives

A recommendation by state Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater that Florida's public universities "prioritize" their programs brought an energetic response Tuesday, but not necessarily wholehearted agreement.

Speaking to students at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton on Monday, Atwater said the Legislature's $300 million cut in the state's higher education budget will require more coordination among the 11 campuses.

"We can't have 11 world-class universities without regard to (academic) discipline," the former state Senate president told a gathering hosted by FAU and the Tallahassee-based James Madison Institute.

"If we have 11 medical schools and 11 law schools, we've made a mistake," he said.

Kelly Layman, spokeswoman for the state's university system, responded that higher education "has endured cumulative state operating base cuts of nearly 50 percent the past six fiscal years to the extent now that student access to our public universities is at risk while we are challenged to grow with demand."

"Student graduation rates are at risk, for example, because students can't afford to be enrolled five or six years as course sections are cut, while state investment in existing buildings and infrastructure is a fraction of what is needed for deferred maintenance, ADA compliance, and fire and public safety compliance."

Atwater did not dispute that collegiate budgets are tightening, and he predicted they could get tighter as state revenue stagnates.

Noting that tax flows from Florida's once-frothy real-estate market have slowed dramatically, Atwater pointed out that 350,000 homes are in foreclosure, "and another 200,000 to come."

Amid a trickling revenue stream, and expected higher costs for the state's $21 billion Medicaid program, he said, Florida's public universities need to be innovative in seeking funding sources beyond Tallahassee.

At the same time, the former banker said capital costs and operating expenses can be contained if campus leaders designate specialties that do not overlap with programs elsewhere in the state.

He said a selective, prioritized approach -- instead of across-the-board campus cuts -- will produce a healthier system overall. So, too, he added, would a greater emphasis on attracting philanthropic and corporate donors for both academics and athletics.

Atwater applauded FAU for pursuing two close-at-home areas of study: conducting research into power generation by tapping the Atlantic Gulf Stream while focusing on the health care of South Florida's senior population.

The CFO also related that the University of Florida is developing a solid national reputation for its technology-transfer programs.

"A group of venture capitalists told me that UF is one of the three top universities in the country for this, right there with Stanford and MIT," said Atwater, who earned his bachelor's and MBA degrees in Gainesville.

Layman said the university system has four law schools and six medical schools, including FAU's two-year-old med school.

"There are no plans for more," Layman said, though adding that all the schools have waiting lists. "They're accepting only a fraction of the eligible applicants."

Layman acknowledged that the 11-campus system does have duplication in its academic programs.

"There will always be some duplication. The critical question is: Is it unwarranted?

"We've been more than aggressive in the last five years in (weeding out) unwarranted and unjustified duplication, and we will continue to do so," she said.

To achieve $300 million in savings -- necessitated in part by Gov. Rick Scott's call for a $1 billion boost in K-12 spending -- the Legislature cut base funding at each university by 6.9 percent and reduced reserves by 26.9 percent at each campus.

It's hardly good news to students and their parents, but lawmakers attempted to soften the campus cuts by authorizing another round of tuition hikes for 2012-2013.

According to the university system, "There is an assumption of 15 percent differential tuition increase for all undergraduates; an 8 percent tuition increase to graduate-level, professional, nonresident tuition; and an 8 percent increase to undergraduate nonresident tuition."

In past years, most of the universities did not pursue graduate-level tuition increases, or they increased at a lesser percentage. Most of the universities are not considering any graduate-level tuition increases this year, a system document stated.

Undergraduate tuition at Florida's 11 state universities averaged $5,626 this year. That's nearly double the rate in 2007, but it's still less than the U.S. public-school average of $8,240, according to The College Board.

Contact Kenric Ward at kward@sunshinestatenews.com or at (772) 801-5341.

Comments (2)

10:44AM APR 11TH 2012
Gee . . . until 2001 and Jeb Bush, we HAD an institution that did exactly what Atwater desires - controlling duplicative programs in the state university system - - it was called the Board of Regents. It routinely controlled the programs that various universities focused on. Subsequently, over Republican protests, former Governor Bob Graham led a succesful ballot initiative to establish the current Florida Board of Governors system. Unfortunately, under Republican leadership the current Board of Governors delegated too much authority to the individual universities, with each attempting to built their own uncoordinated fiefdoms and "racing toward mediocrity". Atwater has no one to blame but his own party for this problem.
9:22AM APR 11TH 2012
I am becoming more and more of the opinion that the problem with education in this state is that there are too many chiefs and not enough Indians. Mr. Atwater might want to give up his job and take on the position of university president. Once he solves all of the problems at that university he can then proceed to the next until he has solved them all. Keeping in mind he will have to work with a bunch of misfit legislators who think they know exactly what is wrong with the system.

As for the educators currently working at these universities it is all about the money. They may tell you it is about the students but make no mistake about it, money is king.

The real losers is the students and the parents. The students have to wait a year or two to take one class to graduate. The parents are faced with increases in tuition and then the hidden tuition that few talk about, fees which sometimes are as much as the tuition itself.

Universities were formed around this state to meet certain needs. Most of these needs were geographic in nature. Some were specific, medical, agricultural, legal. Now it appears that universities are formed to lease the "well connected" in a specific area. We know that we do not "need" the "J.D. Alexander University of Ego" yet it appears we will have just that. No, instead we should have universities step up to the plate and take on that segment of education. Instead we the taxpayers will be paying for a university that is not needed and Mr. Atwater will continue to complain.

Is this a great country or what?

Leave a Comment on This Story

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.
To prevent automated spam submissions leave this field empty.