January 31, 2013. New speaker of Florida House outlines higher education reforms during panel discussion in Orlando
By Denise-Marie Ordway, Orlando Sentinel
7:28 PM EST, January 29, 2013
Florida’s new speaker of the house, Will Weatherford, said Tuesday that he supports allowing public research universities such as the University of Central Florida and the University of Florida to charge higher tuition than other state universities.
The idea was among several higher-education reforms that Weatherford told a crowd in Orlando that he is backing as the Legislature prepares for its next session in March.
During a panel discussion at the Ball Room at Church Street, Weatherford said allowing the state’s top research universities to charge more would help them fund improvements and raise their national profile. Today, tuition among state universities varies only slightly. Florida State University and the University of South Florida are also considered top research institutions.
“I think people are willing to pay more for a product if they know that product is going to be better,” Weatherford told a crowd of about 250 people who gathered for the discussion, which also featured E. Ann McGee, the president of Seminole State College; Tico Perez, who just completed his seventh year serving on the Board of Governors of the State University System; and Tom Auxter, president of the statewide faculty union.
The event, “Florida Forward: Shake-up in Higher Education?,” was sponsored by UCF and the Orlando Sentinel.
Weatherford, 33, a Republican from Wesley Chapel, also said the state’s funding system for higher education needs to be revamped.
All public universities should receive state money based on how they perform in areas such as graduation rates and job-placement rates, he said — a significant move away from the current formula, which is based primarily on enrollment.
He also wants to see online education expanded so that more Floridians have access to bachelor’s degrees.
Although Weatherford said he isn’t sure such changes will be made during the legislative session, he emphasized that members of the House will not settle for the status quo.
“If you think we can do better and we can reform and we can innovate and we can do more with what we have … then we [the House] are your guy,” he said.
Weatherford’s fellow panelists shared their own thoughts on a variety of higher-education issues, including how years of budget cuts have hurt professor pay.
Auxter said faculty salaries fall behind their national peers by $10,000 for every decade they work in Florida, making it tough to recruit top scholars to the state.
“If you’re not funding faculty,” Auxter pointed out, “you’re not funding a first-rate university.”
McGee, of Seminole State, said Florida should research new sources of income. In some states, she said, a voter-approved tax supplements state funding for community colleges.
“The reality is the state is not going to be able to fund everything we need to do — they don’t now,” she said. “So we’ve got to look at new sources.”
WUCF-Channel 24 will broadcast the discussion at 11 a.m. Feb. 24.
dordway(at)tribune.com or 407-420-5470