Director, External Relations
EDITORIAL: Protect State's Economic Future
Our View: Investing in tomorrow
08/12/08 Florida Today
Stem faculty flight from Florida universities to protect state's economic future
It's an exodus the state must stop, or badly damage its already unstable economic future.
We're talking about the brain drain of top talent at state universities as nationally known professors pack their bags and head to posts in states that pay more -- and where there's more support for excellence in higher education.
Experts in economics, robotics, molecular medicine, communication disorders such as dementia and other fields have already fled this year. And states such as Texas and North Carolina are heavily recruiting more key faculty, offering higher salaries and funds for high-tech research.
That's why -- despite a continued decline in state revenues -- the Florida Board of Governors is asking the Legislature to boost pay for professors and staff.
The Board, which oversees the university system, met in Jacksonville Thursday and approved a $3.7 billion budget request that includes $65 million to fund a 4 percent raise in next year's budget.
They should get it.
Faculty members have received raises only twice in the past five years. But it's not just about competitive pay rates for academics.
It's about not throwing away Florida's chance at reinventing itself as a state with a highly educated workforce prepared to compete for jobs and industry in a 21st century economy.
That's especially critical in the current slump.
And for the future of the Space Coast, which is direly in need of new economic engines to fill the blanks looming from post-shuttle job losses, and which is staring at its own brain drain of scientists and engineers as the program closes down.
There's talk, for example, of using facilities at Kennedy Space Center for high-tech start-ups such as alternative and green energy research. But to lure that kind of enterprise, you need strong universities cranking out the highly skilled workforce employers demand.
What do Florida universities have now? The reputation for being dead last in critical measures of excellence such as student-faculty ratios.
They're dropping in other national rankings as well, due to consistently stingy funding from the Legislature, which has been reluctant to allow tuition increases because it must pick up the tab for thousands of Bright Futures scholarships.
Schools are jacking tuition rates from 6 to 15 percent this year, but Florida colleges remain the cheapest in the nation.
That's only a bargain for students and parents as long as it buys a quality product.
Increasingly, it doesn't. Grappling with a 6 percent budget hit of about $130 million this year, the system is falling even farther behind.
Schools such as Florida State University and the University of Central Florida are eliminating faculty positions, dropping academic degree programs, and slashing services such as computer lab availability.
And cutting enrollment, leaving more Space Coast families with college-bound high school graduates closed out of their school of choice.
Small raises for faculty alone won't right what's wrong with Florida's universities.
But as part of an overall budget increase of 5 percent for 2009-10 the Board will submit to Gov. Charlie Crist, the pay hikes can help staunch the bleed of talent until the downturn ends.
And help secure Florida's shaky footing on the path to economic growth.