Saturday, July 28, 2007

University Access VS Academic Excellence: The Floridian Battleground

The state university system here in Florida has been in the news for some time now. First, several of the top echelon of public universities, my alma mater, UF, included, petitioned to the State Legislature to raise the tuition fees, citing the fee differential in comparison with other states (Florida charges the least tuition fees for public universities of all states) as the primary stumbling block to achieving the status of a premier university. For example, UF ranks 47 in one university ranking list that focuses on academic excellence. In contrast, UF is ranked quite high in terms of the greatest bang for the buck.

The universities argue, not unconvincingly I suppose, that the increased revenue will pay for the hire of top-notched professors, better facilities, and smaller class size. This in turn will attract highly achieving students, and the virtuous cycle repeats itself. Even the student leaders echo the same sentiments, foregoing short-term benefits (affordability) for long-term gain (academic recognition).

The newly minted State Governor, on the other hand, values access more than academic excellence. This is a classic battle between egalitarianism and elitism. On one hand, the former is a popular social agenda, especially in a democracy where political victories are won by the electoral vote.

On the other hand, the frontiers of knowledge are not pushed by averaged students whose preoccupation could easily have been the economic benefits that would be conferred on them upon earning a college degree. Thereafter, they will likely remain as the users, rather than the innovators, of technologies. For that, the scientific enterprise will need a critical mass of advanced thinkers, designers, and innovators to push the wheel of civilization further along.

Just when things are coming to a head, a compromise, as always, emerges: a tiered university system. The highly regarded of the lot such as UF and FSU will get to charge higher tuition, leaving the financially needy to be catered by the second tier universities.

In a way, this tiered system is already in use in states such as California (the UC and the CSU system), at least in terms of academic prestige where the former outranks the latter. So the Florida universities are not treading on uncharted territories.

But hiccups, teeming problems, are bound to accompany new initiatives, more so when the parties involved (the governor and the State legislature on one side, and the Board of Governors of the universities on the other, who have seen (perceived) their decision making role being usurped by the State administration) are brought to the table rather grudgingly.

The latest twist of event has the Governor postponing the implementation of the tiered tuition system to the next academic year. In turn, the universities initiated an austerity drive in the form of hire freeze and program cuts, citing worsening budget deficit that has snowballed over the years as the reason. The universities have even resorted to the legal due process to decide once and for all, who (the State legislature or the Board of Governors) has the power to change university tuition.

Personally, I’m for both university access for deserving students, they being not denied their rightful place in the haloed ground of universities because of a quirk in the social milieu that they have no control over, and academic excellence that can only accrue from top-notched professors and students banging their hands together in the best equipped facilities. That means revenue, a big portion of which is from tuition collection.

Also, implementing a tiered system seems a sensible compromise, pushing forth with the social agenda of leveling university access and the agenda of par excellence in academic pursuit.

In the interim, some innocent folks may fall by the wayside. And I came to realize this unpredictable nature of life this morning when I was talking to my neighbor on my way out to run some banking errands. He was polishing the chrome wheels of his SUV, part of his weekend routine. The conversation started rather casually with “how are you this morning?” After some perfunctory exchanges of niceties, I ventured to ask him what he was teaching at USF (I have learned previously of his vocation from the sales office in our development).

Well, I teach a course to the first-year students [I did not catch the name of the course]. But next week will be my last week as they cut my program.” Huh? So he is the first casualty I have met of the hiring freeze and program cuts mentioned above.

He seemed unfazed by the whole thing, merely adding that he would take some time off to think about the next move, and continued to wish me a good day.

How to you express your condolence to one who has just become unemployed? What about his family? All I could muster was “tough luck”, knowing fully well that luck has nothing to do with his predicament at all.

How would I react under the same circumstance? One that I have no control over? I guess the real answer will only surface when I come to the bridge. But it does prompt one to think ahead, and not to take things for granted, and to prepare for rainy days, by networking, and by not burning any bridges.

And live in the moment, and do our very best everyday.

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