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Gov. Rick Scott and Florida Higher Education: Part 2

A week or so ago I reported on my governor, Rick Scott of Florida, and his negative views on anthropology. Here is another in what I suspect is going to be an ongoing series on Governor Scott and his views and plans for higher education.

This being so, let me make it clear right now that I am in respects sympathetic to important aspects of his attitude and drive. There is no doubt but that the United States of America is in a mess. The world is changing: countries like China and India are coming up fast; oil is a commodity that everyone wants, that is a limited resource, and that carries with it significant problems like pollution (global warming) and the need to cozy up to vile regimes; and much more. Yet it seems increasingly apparent that we simply don’t have the political system to deal with many of the challenges. Order cannot be imposed from the top down and too many politicians are in thrall to powerful, moneyed interests.

But whether or not we are going to get change, we need it, and we should be discussing the changes that we need. And it is clear that higher education needs to be included in the discussion. Let’s not be silly. Universities and colleges in America, from the posh Ivy League universities down to the humble community colleges, are among the country’s glories. Just one example. Five years ago my middle son left high school in my opinion virtually functionally illiterate. Two years at Tallahassee Community College and he had his associate’s degree and was on his way to the University of British Columbia, from where he is just graduating. And as you scramble up the food chain, things get better and better.

But it is equally silly to pretend that all is well, or that the teaching is as good as it might be—too many large classes, too many adjuncts or grad students doing the job, too much simply getting a text and following it line by line, too much rewarding only research and nothing else. Too little thinking about what can be done with the degree or what should be done with the degree. And the list goes on and on, with year after year universities cutting staff and facilities while raising prices beyond the level of inflation.

I am not saying that it is all or even mainly the universities’ fault. The budgets are usually determined elsewhere; at least this is the case for public institutions. I am simply saying that thinking about these issues is really important and that is why, in principle, I am not against what Governor Scott is about.

But that said, one hardly knows whether to laugh or to cry. It would be nice to say that the comments about anthropology were off the cuff and ill thought through, but the way he kept repeating the message suggests otherwise. Now he is starting to move in more directions, and I am sure this is just the beginning of an assault that will intensify next year when the (Republican-controlled) legislature returns to Tallahassee (the capital).

For a start, he has put all of our salaries up on his Web page. Given our sunshine laws, he is legally entitled to do this, and indeed one could find them before if you were prepared to make the effort. But obviously he is not just interested in making the law more effective. He wants to engender resentment among the general population at the amount of money that we slackers are getting. He is softening things up so he can go after a weaker opponent. (OK—I am using emotive terms like “slacker” and “opponent.” If it turns out that I am wrong, I will willingly apologize.)

Let me make two comments about this act. First, in some respects it backfires. Faculty look at their salaries—more importantly they look at the salaries of others and compare—and often feel unhappy and cheated. Already I have had a junior member of the unit I run come to me, moaning (legitimately), asking if I can squeeze something for him out of the budget. The immediate result could be more paid out rather than less.

Second, when you look at the salaries, you start to see something that is significantly wrong with the system today, with far less qualified people paid more than far more qualified people. I am not talking now about the medical school faculty getting salaries that only football coaches can dream of, but within regular departments. Some of this comes from truly ridiculous factors. The entering salary at Florida State is based on national averages. They tend to go up each year. Our salaries have been frozen for five or more years. So you can have someone of three or four years’ experience and achievement paid less than someone just hired.

But a major reason for the disparities are the wretched system of getting offers elsewhere that are then matched or bettered by the home institution. This leads not only to massive time wasting and effort—letters I write by the dozen for people who have no intention of moving—and all sorts of injustices. I have a colleague in the religion department who was made a really good offer elsewhere. Our dean knew he has a wife who had just got a good job (not high paying but personally satisfying) here. So the dean made a derisory counter offer calculating, correctly, that he would not move. It may be good business. It isn’t moral.

So here for a start is a place that I would like to see some thinking. It doesn’t have to be the American way. In Britain and basically in Canada you have a grid and that is it. Counter offers are not part of the culture. When I got offered a better salary at Florida State from what I was making in Canada, the provost shook my hand and wished me well. (We all knew I was going to take the job, not for the money, but to avoid compulsory retirement. But even though that was coming to an end in Canada, he wasn’t in the business of bargaining.)

As I said, this is one of a series of dispatches from the war zone. Next up: Rick Scott’s letter to the university presidents.

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