Director, External Relations
OPINION: Carolyn Roberts, Higher education's most ardent advocate
Source: Ocala Star Banner
View Original Article
EDITORIAL - Ocala Star Banner
Higher education's most ardent advocate
Published: Sunday, June 22, 2008
For nearly two decades Carolyn Roberts has been an influential presence in the governance of Florida's public universities. As chairwoman of the Board of Governors the past five years, she has grown into our state's most passionate and provocative advocate for higher education.
Through her public service, Roberts, an Ocala Realtor and arguably our community's most influential state political figure, has elevated the conversation about higher education in Florida, moving it to front and center. First to the defunct Board of Regents in 1989 and then to the Board of Governors in 2003, and having served under five Florida governors, she is uniquely well-versed and prepared to lead the discussion. Her counsel is widely sought by lawmakers and policy-makers, many of whom, ironically, she has challenged pointedly and publicly for their political stances and policies.
Through it all, Roberts has had one objective: "I don't believe you can have a great state without a great university system." Hear, hear.
"This is about people," she told us. "This is about opportunity. I don't think there is anything more important than higher education in providing opportunity."
While it is impossible to argue with Roberts' perspective, the reality is Florida has grown by leaps and bounds over the past generation, and with that growth has become tremendous competition for finite state dollars. Sadly, the Legislature has acted with shortsightedness by too often shortchanging higher education.
Today our universities now rank at the absolute bottom nationally in tuition rates and, in turn, faculty-student ratio. The economic crisis facing Florida's universities has festered to the point they are capping enrollment and turning qualified students away, laying off professors and paring academic offerings, despite pleas from Roberts and the Board of Governors to invest more in higher education. They believe, and rightly so, that higher tuition rates are the place to start, and that Florida's $3,500-a-year tuition should be raised to the national average - $5,800 - within three years.
As Roberts wrote in a June 2007 commentary, "I don't believe dead last is what we aspire to for our students. Our state deserves better."
Much of her tenure as Board of Governors chairwoman, an unpaid appointed post, has been spent defining the board's role after voters established it in 2002 and waging battles with the Legislature and the universities themselves over authority and control. Some in the Legislature, led by past Senate President Ken Pruitt, among others, have argued it is lawmakers who should have final say over the operation of and funding of our universities. The debate has led to lawsuits and a proposed - and failed - constitutional amendment, each time with Roberts leading the Board of Governors charge.
Yet, while some of these battles have been contentious, Roberts has always conducted herself with class. Of that, we are proud - for our community and our state. With her disarming Southern charm and accumulated wisdom, Roberts has managed to effectively m and kindle support from the citizenry and the politicians along the way.
"If I have had any success, it's because I haven't had any agenda except what's best for our university system," she said.
Roberts will hand over the Board of Governors gavel to Tampa lawyer Sheila McDevitt next month, bringing to end her tenure as chairwoman. She will remain on the board, though, until at least 2010, and she says she intends to remain actively involved in what obviously is the unfinished business of raising awareness and indeed investment in Florida's public universities. No, dead last isn't what our state aspires to.
We agree when Roberts says, "It is important for our state to make a commitment to higher education and expect from that commitment a better work force and the reward of more business investment. It is clear to me that the reward from this investment will come very quickly."
Our lawmakers should listen up.
For now, though, we thank Carolyn Roberts for serving our community and our state and doing a job that is often a thankless but undeniably important to the economic and cultural future of our children and our state. Florida and its people are better off for her efforts, and we thank her.