After Florida Governor’s Controversial Higher Ed Remarks, Educators Remain Uneasy

It was an off-the-cuff observation coming from a governor known for off-the-cuff remarks. Asked last fall about the direction Florida higher education should be going in, Rick Scott, a former successful venture capitalist elected in 2010, came down on the side of promoting programs that teach skills that he said were valued in today’s job market.

Scott specifically mentioned science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) disciplines as programs he thinks Florida should put more money into. He then launched a broadside against liberal arts education when he asked: “Is it a vital interest of the state to have more anthropologists? I don’t think so.”

Speaking before a regional business group in Tallahassee, Scott also remarked: “How many jobs you think there are for anthropology in the state? You want to use your tax dollars to educate more people that can’t get jobs in anthropology? I don’t.”

Scott’s remarks set off a firestorm of controversy throughout Florida’s higher education community, a controversy that didn’t go away when Scott, in his January State of the State address, commented: “Florida has a rich cultural history surrounding its colleges and universities.”

To laughter, the governor added: “Don’t take my word for it. Ask any anthropologist.”

Educators put out by Scott’s remarks, says Lane Wright, the governor’s spokesman, have missed the point.

“All he was saying was, ‘Look, I don’t know how many jobs there are out there for anthropology, but I know there are a lot of jobs in the STEM field,’” says Wright, “and people took that out of context. He wanted to start a conversation about STEM because that is where the market is, that is where the jobs are.”

Observes Dr. Eric Barron, president of Florida State University in Tallahassee: “Gov. Scott sees the opportunity of STEM degrees being good for Florida and good for helping to attract or keep business in the state.” But Barron worries that an overemphasis on STEM programs might be a product of present-day but not long-term workplace needs.

“It’s difficult to put out a group of students for today’s demand when it takes five years to produce the students and have them trained in the most in-demand areas,” says Barron.

“You have to also be conscious about where things are going,” adds Barron, “instead of just addressing the current demand.”

Dr. Ralph Wilcox, provost and executive vice president of the University of Southern Florida in Tampa, worries about the same trends.

“For years Florida emphasized agriculture, tourism and growth — most particularly real estate growth,” he says. “But with the recession, tourism and real estate took a particularly hard hit, while agriculture had not been doing well for some time before that anyway.”

Because of workplace and industry changes, Wilcox says that, even as USF has offered a wide array of STEM programs, “We have not been willing to sacrifice the arts and humanities and social sciences because we’ve also heard from employers who want educated young men and women who have well-developed critical thinking, problem-solving, communications, team-building and jobs skills.”

Larry Tyree, president of Florida Keys Community College in Key West, a region of the state where a significant portion of the enrollment is made up of older students who have lost their jobs in the recession, says he thinks today’s employers also are looking for employees who have critical thinking skills.

“A STEM education makes a graduate that much more employable,” he says. “But the critical thinking that comes as a result of a liberal arts education is just as important.”

Noting that his school, surrounded by the ocean, emphasizes marine technology, marine environmental technology and diving business and technology, Tyree adds that the Florida higher education system does its best when it responds to local and regional job market needs.

“And that can be in either STEM or the liberal arts or both,” he says, “as long as we are providing an education that helps our students succeed after they graduate.”

Wright says such remarks are exactly what Scott was looking for, a dialectic exploration of where higher education in one of the nation’s largest and fastest-growing states should be going.

“This has all ended up being a good thing because it has gotten a discussion going,” says Wright.

That dialogue also has seen the extraordinary sight this winter of all the presidents of both two- and four-year schools in Florida traveling to Tallahassee to testify before the state’s House Education Committee to talk about their needs and goals.

“All of us have learned something by listening to them,” says Rep. Bill Proctor, chairman of the committee.

“We know now more than ever from these conversations that we need STEM production. We know that we need well-educated liberal arts graduates as well,” remarks Proctor. “But we also know that there are manufacturers and businesses that will tell you that we need people with just an AA degree.”

“And of course we still have to address how we are going to pay for all of this, and who should pay for it,” continues Proctor. “And what is the actual, real need for STEM graduates? We know there is a need out there, but what is it precisely? It will change from day to day, obviously. So we need some type of a target, even if it’s a moving one.”

Bluntly, Proctor adds: “Trying to find out precisely what those needs are, within some broad standards, is something we just don’t have a clear handle on right now.”