Florida Republicans remain doggedly clueless about higher education

New College of Florida students protest about a possible merger with another public university. Credit: New College Facebook page.

OCCUPIED TALLAHASSEE – Florida Republicans’ disdain for education is matched only by their ignorance of how education works.

That doesn’t stop them from screwing around with curricula, micro-managing teachers, and undermining knowledge in their attempts to produce generation upon generation of pliant church-going consumer-cogs in the profit engine, unencumbered by critical thinking.

The core education question Florida Republicans ask themselves is: Can we cut its funding?

The latest boneheaded idea? “Give” Florida Polytechnic University and New College, currently independent institutions of higher learning, to one of the big state universities.

Rep. Randy Fine of Brevard, proud author of this half-assed notion, initially declared FSU would get New College and U.F. would get Florida Polytechnic University, but then Gov. Ron DeSantis wondered aloud why not USF because, you know, geography: Tallahassee’s way up yonder, and Tampa’s just up the road.

Fine decided that wouldn’t do, either, so now the plan calls for U.F. to devour both – kind of like the god Cronus swallowing his children, which, as we all know, did not go entirely as planned.

Fine, chairman of the House Higher Ed Appropriations subcommittee, is a former gambling executive with not one but two degrees from Harvard, as he’s always the first to point out, and has all the charm and grace of a hyena with a hangover.

When one of his constituents defended an event to foster dialog between Israel and Palestine, Fine likened the man to a member of the Judenrat, the councils that collaborated with the Nazis.

His heroes include Donald Trump (naturally) and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, currently under indictment for bribery, fraud, and corruption.

Fine insists making New College and Florida Polytechnic part of U.F. will save taxpayers money: “For every one student we educate at these schools there is five we can’t educate,” he says.

Not that there are data to support his ungrammatical assertion: no consultation, no serious research.

The Florida Republican attitude to higher education has always ranged from cluelessness to raw hostility. They wish universities would just graduate business majors, support decent football teams, and shut up.

Florida Poly and New College don’t even have football teams.

Obviously, the way to treat the book-learning industrial complex is to slash its cash whenever possible.

Fine figures a degree at the University of Florida costs the state a little over 21 grand, but the state has to shell out nine times as much for a degree at New College and even more for a B.S. at Florida Poly.

The president of Florida Polytechnic points out that Fine’s information is: 1. Out of date and reflects the very high cost of graduating that first tiny class – around 200 – three years ago; 2. Includes the cost of building the campus in the first place; and 3. Doesn’t take into account that STEM degrees are way, way pricier than arts degrees.

Fine has only lived in Florida since 2006, so perhaps he doesn’t fully appreciate that state funding of our public universities has declined by 22 percent since 2008.

Got to give those rich folks their tax cuts.

When the state cuts funding for higher education, universities become more and more dependent on tuition, even as the Legislature demands universities never raise tuition.

Maybe the guy with the two Harvard degrees can figure out that conundrum.

Fine is correct about one thing: Florida Polytechnic exists only because Senate Republicans did one of their own a big, fat political favor in 2012.

Sen. J.D. Alexander owned a big chunk of land through which he wanted to run a completely unnecessary toll road to make the land more valuable.

A college nearby would be more valuable still, so Alexander got himself one, moving Florida Poly out of USF to its own campus, on property he donated, named after him.

But it’s there now, and has students who depend on it.

New College is older, founded in 1960 as a private liberal arts college. When it had financial troubles in 1975, USF took it over. The Florida Senate cut it loose again in 2001.

Students at New College are attracted by its small class sizes (there’s about a 10-to-1 student to faculty ratio), and its emphasis on independent thought – as those who traveled to Tallahassee last week told senators.

Graduates tend to be less interested in well-paying McJobs than creativity, going off to run the Electronic Frontier Foundation, win the Fields Medal in mathematics, become president of the New York Federal Reserve Bank, or direct the Belize Zoo.

What Sen. Fine does not understand (one of the many things he doesn’t understand) is that education is not merely vocational training; education is about challenging authority, cultivating the mind, engaging with ideas you don’t like, figuring out who you are, learning to think.

Florida Republicans assume everything is about money.

They’re wrong.

Diane Roberts
Diane Roberts is an 8th-generation Floridian, born and bred in Tallahassee, which probably explains her unhealthy fascination with Florida politics. Educated at Florida State University and Oxford University in England, she has been writing for newspapers since 1983, when she began producing columns on the legislature for the Florida Flambeau. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, the Times of London, the Guardian, the Washington Post, the Oxford American, and Flamingo. She has been a member of the Editorial Board of the St. Petersburg Times–back when that was the Tampa Bay Times’s name–and a long-time columnist for the paper in both its iterations. She was a commentator on NPR for 22 years and continues to contribute radio essays and opinion pieces to the BBC. Roberts is also the author of four books, most recently Dream State, an historical memoir of her Florida family, and Tribal: College Football and the Secret Heart of America. She lives in Tallahassee, except for the times she runs off to Great Britain, desperate for a different government to satirize.