ACTA in the News | Trustee Selection

All Eyes On Higher Education In Florida

How state proposals could affect funding, recruitment
TAMPA BAY BUSINESS JOURNAL   |  February 9, 2023

Local business leaders and higher education officials are playing a waiting game for the potential ramifications of Gov. Ron DeSantis’ quickly growing snowball of higher education reform.

There was the appointment of Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Nebraska, in November 2022 to fill the University of Florida’s president’s spot. In December, DeSantis asked the dozen state universities to provide lists of their diversity, equity and inclusion programming with associated costs, later stating he plans to cut the funding entirely. And in January, DeSantis appointed six board of trustee members — the maximum amount he could appoint — to Sarasota’s New College of Florida, leading to the resignation of New College President Patricia Okker.

The proposal has to go through the Florida Legislature for approval, which could take several months. Most of those interviewed stated as of now, they were not concerned.

“It hasn’t become a topic at all; people know there’s a lot of political strength to the issue right now; it’s where and how will all this shake out,” said Bob Rohrlack, president of the Tampa Bay Chamber of Commerce. “It’s in the political arena, not the business arena, currently.”

Others believe the Legislature would not go as far as some fear.

“If it is a snowball effect, the question is, ‘What’s next?’” said Karen Zaderej, CEO of Tampa-based biotech firm Axogen. Zaderej also serves as a trustee at the University of Tampa. “As we see things so far, I don’t have alarm bells going off. It wasn’t a cascade of things that made Florida not friendly for people of color, women — that would be a concern — but I don’t see that right now.”

But for others, the slow climb toward an erosion of the dozen state universities seems inevitable.

“[DeSantis] is going to destroy the university system,” said Steve Uhlfelder, a longtime pillar in the state’s education system. He was a chair on the Board of Regents, served as a trustee for Florida State University, and has worked across party lines — he was appointed as a trustee by then Gov. Jeb Bush and served on President Barack Obama’s education-policy committee.

“I mean, where’s the business community? They should be the most concerned,” Uhlfelder said. “What’s going to happen to research grants, to outstanding faculty? Everyone should be concerned about what he’s doing.”

Funding at stake

USF was awarded more than $560 million in grants in fiscal year 2021 alone, a record year for the school and an indicator of its rising research star.

But the school could find itself in a push-and-pull between federal and state regulations. If state universities are unable or not allowed to hit DEI metrics — many of which are required by research institutions such as the National Institutes of Health — it could leave millions on the table.

“I work for the state; ultimately, I’ll do what I’m told, but I think it’s important all the potential downstream impacts of the law be considered and whether or not they would be harmful,” said Charles Lockwood, senior vice president of USF Health and dean of the Morsani College of Medicine. “It impacts the state universities’ reputation and the state’s economy. If we lost the NIH funding, that would be very bad. I don’t know how realistic that would be because I don’t know what the law is going to be.”

There’s also the gamble that even if USF were to comply with all the proposed federal regulations, institutions like the NIH could still hold back funding. While the NIH is a non-partisan institution, it is a component of the federal government.

“The [federal government’s] views are very different from our governors,” Lockwood said. “I’m not saying the government would play political games, but I wouldn’t expect them to be liberal in their interpretations as it relates to Florida; let me leave it at that.”

Uhlfelder put it a bit more bluntly.

“Why would people give money to institutions ruled by one person?” he said, alluding toward DeSantis’ control.

As for funding from donors, several sources stated they anecdotally know of estates or friends who are withholding future donations. But Lockwood said he isn’t panicking.

“Most of our donors are grateful patients,” he said. “As long as we do our job and save lives, they will keep donating. I don’t think it will impact us at all.”

And more conservative groups see the proposed legislation to cut DEI programs as decisions they should support, both politically and monetarily.

“I think it’s going to make these universities more competitive and more attractive,” said Michael Poliakoff, president of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, a conservative nonprofit. “Really it’s a sign of higher education health when you have a governor really concerned and enraged with the issue of quality and effectiveness of higher education.”

Recruiting and retaining faculty and staff

The DEI programs slated to be cut would follow an order from Bush filed in 1999, known as the “One Florida” initiative that banned “racial or gender set-asides, preferences or quotas” in university admissions, state hiring and contracting. Because the ban is still in place, state universities already cannot focus on hiring a set amount of diverse faculty.

But programming related to DEI, such as USF’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion in the Workplace certificate offering, could be cut — which some believe could lead to a lesser quality workforce due to a lack of diverse voices and ideas.

“We’re watching to make sure our overall education system is meeting the need to be the best workforce they can be,” the chamber’s Rohrlack said. “I think [cuts] would be a concern because we want to make sure the same type of training we’re seeing … USF did the DEI certificate programming, which was tremendous. There would be some discussion to make sure it wouldn’t create unintended consequences from the legislation.”

USF has put DEI efforts on hold, announcing last week it was pausing its search for a VP for that office.

“Given the uncertainty surrounding any laws or regulations that may eventually come from these requests and proposals, there are too many unknowns to proceed with our current search,” USF President Rhea Law said in a letter to the USF community.

Axogen’s Zaderej, who comes from the highly competitive world of biotech, does not think the proposed legislation will change the competitiveness of recruiting.

“I don’t think it’s a surprise that Florida isn’t as liberal as California,” she said. “What I find that attracts people to Florida is saying, ‘Here is the company — it’s exciting and high growth.’ But then there are some nice pluses with no state income tax, the weather — if you move them on a February day from Boston — those are some pretty powerful draws.”

Where Florida sits on a national stage

The more significant ramification could be several years away. If NIH funding were to drop, along with the recruitment of faculty or students, it could lead to a dip in national rankings.

While rankings like the well-known U.S. News and World Report have been criticized in recent months, it serves as a way to bring attention to faculty and students. USF proudly broke the top 50 in the nation for the first time in September, and the state’s flagship, UF, sits at No. 5. But changes have begun to shift, with Sasse taking over and UF’s provost, Joe Glover, announcing last week he would be leaving the university in July.

Sources that spoke to the Business Journal said discussions have quietly begun within faculties that could lead to more changes within universities’ own walls.

“I think there’s great concern and frustration that people don’t feel there is a discussion going on,” said Betty Castor, a former three-term Florida state senator, state commissioner of education and president of USF. “And I think that’s a problem.”

This article originally appeared in the Tampa Bay Business Journal on February 9, 2023.


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