Florida Higher Ed System Confronting Multiple Challenges

TALLAHASSEE Fla. – When former Lt. Gov. Frank Brogan became the Florida university system’s chancellor two months ago, he faced an imposing list of financial and political problems.

Tight budgets have meant enrollment caps at most of the 11 schools. The Bright Futures scholarship program that’s popular among middle-class parents is outstripping the Florida Lottery’s ability to pay for it.

The state’s medical schools are churning out more graduates than Florida has places where they can get hospital residency training. That means new physicians educated largely at taxpayer expense are leaving a state with a doctor shortage.

Brogan’s bosses on the Board of Governors, which oversees the universities, have raised the hackles of lawmakers through a lawsuit challenging the Legislature’s authority to set tuition and make other key decisions affecting universities.

The board hired Brogan, also a former state education commissioner whose last job was president of Florida Atlantic University, because he’s a political and educational insider who can use those relationships to mend fences and find solutions.

“Frank Brogan has all the experience he needs to deal with higher education,” said state Sen. Don Gaetz, a harsh critic of Brogan’s predecessor, Mark Rosenberg. “Frank will be a very different chancellor because he doesn’t just come from one perspective. He understands issues 360 degrees around.”

A Republican who was then-Gov. Jeb Bush’s No. 2 from 1999 until 2003 when he resigned to take over Florida Atlantic, Brogan will need to draw on his political skill to get on the right side of the GOP-controlled Legislature.

He recently appeared before several legislative committees to tout his vision for advancing higher education in Florida, including using the universities to create a knowledge-based economy. Some key lawmakers, though, were distracted by another matter.

“It is very difficult to talk about doing great things together when someone is suing you,” said Gaetz, a Niceville Republican who chairs the Senate’s Commerce and Industry Committee.

The board is part of a lawsuit against the Legislature initially filed by former U.S. Sen. and ex-Gov. Bob Graham and several other private but prominent citizens two years ago. The lawsuit contends that only the board can set tuition and any related policies.

Brogan said in a recent interview that he expects the board to seek a settlement that would avoid a non-jury trial set for July 6. Brogan said the board cannot just drop the suit because it concerns other governance issues. Also, Graham and the other plaintiffs would have to agree to any settlement.

A new law the Legislature passed last year has opened the door for such an agreement because it gives both the Legislature and board roles in setting tuition, Brogan said.

The Legislature can approve across-the-board tuition increases. Each school, with board approval, also raise its tuition. Combined, though, the increases cannot exceed 15 percent per year. Increases by an individual university can continue until its tuition reaches the national average.

The lawsuit isn’t the only hot issue Brogan inherited.

The merit-based Bright Futures program is such a politically sensitive topic that Rosenberg, now president of Florida International University, and Department of Education officials last year refused to be interviewed about it. Their spokesmen said it’s a legislative, not administrative, issue.

Brogan, though, was an early Bright Futures backer and he’s not reluctant to talk.

Bright Futures paid all or 75 percent of tuition for college and university students who score well on entrance exams and have good grades, but this year lawmakers capped those payments at 2008 rates when they increased tuition.

“That was a major step forward,” Brogan said. “I think there are probably also some other parts of Bright Futures that should be examined.”

That includes raising qualifying standards and using some of the lottery money for need-based aid.

Another of Brogan’s predecessors, Dr. Charles Reed, now head of California’s state university system, called Bright Futures one of Florida’s “dumbest” public policies because it mostly benefits students who don’t need financial aid.

Brogan vehemently disagrees, saying investing “in students who are willing to work hard, study hard and play by the rules” is “not a dumb idea.”

New medical schools at Florida International and the University of Central Florida may do little to help ease the state’s physician shortage without more residency slots. Research shows most doctors wind up practicing in communities where they do their residency.

Florida is short 2,700 residency slots, Brogan said. The federal government pays for most residency training, so Brogan has joined other university and hospital officials to lobby Congress to put more money in the national program or shift surplus slots to growth states that need them.

If those efforts fail, Brogan said Florida must find ways for the state and private sector to pay for more residency positions.

“It’s that critical to us,” he said.

The Legislature has authorized turning some community colleges into state colleges as a low-cost way to meet a growing demand for four-year degrees rather than creating new universities or colleges.

The State Board of Education oversees community and state colleges as well as primary and secondary schools but there’s been little coordination with the university system.

“It’s an issue and it’s a challenge,” Brogan said. “We have to articulate our work in a way that will be working in commonality” rather than “random acts of success.”

Brogan hopes that articulation will start when the two boards hold their first-ever joint meeting Nov. 12 at the new Scripps Research Institute on Florida Atlantic’s Jupiter campus.

Scripps, which does biomedical research, is a step toward creating a knowledge-based economy that Brogan and many others envision for Florida. He noted the state’s economy traditionally has relied on tourism, agriculture and growth counting on newcomers to fuel new construction.

Growth, though, has slowed to a crawl and may never reach pre-recession levels, Brogan said. He believes Florida should follow the example of North Carolina, which has replaced declining industries with high-tech industries by using its universities as research and work force magnets.

Brogan said plans are being developed for each of Florida’s schools to align research and degree production to the economic needs of their regions, the state and nation.

“It is not micromanaging,” Brogan insisted. “I like local control. I think our board likes local control.”

He said there needs, though, to be a system-wide approach to make sure higher education is paying the greatest return possible on investment.

“It also will help us look at perhaps unneeded or unnecessary duplication,” Brogan said. “It will obviously tell us where there might exist voids in some essential services.”