Skip to Content

Performance Funding for Public Universities?

by Tom Auxter

President, United Faculty of Florida

July 2014

The 2014 Florida Legislature established “performance funding” for universities, presumably to increase quality and accountability.  Rhetoric aside, performance-based funding for the universities is a political game. It has nothing to do with increasing quality. It pits universities against each other. The three losers in a somewhat arbitrary ranking system have 1 percent of their total money subtracted this year, and it gets worse each succeeding year. 

Florida Governor Rick Scott and his handpicked appointees to the Board of Governors, the governing body for the State University System of Florida, had the support of the legislative leadership, House Speaker Will Weatherford and Senate President Don Gaetz to push this radical agenda through the legislature this year. However, the United Faculty of Florida (UFF) legislative action team pushed back. With the support of 20 faculty-friendly Senators, UFF got modifications to some of the most draconian measures (see below). Nonetheless, we are still left with a decrease in funds, disguised as an increase.

The governor’s game is to disinvest in higher education while appearing to increase investment. He is using the huge state budget surplus ($1.2 billion) to give gigantic tax breaks to corporations that do not need them rather than fully restoring the $300 million he cut from the universities two years ago and reversing the damaging cuts made over the previous decade, including a 41.2 percent decrease in state funding from 2008 to 2013. His shell game shifts money from some universities to others— giving meager increases to “winners” and destructive cuts to others — while claiming he increased the overall budget.

Even worse, Gov. Scott’s criteria for performance are primarily:  (1) universities producing the most graduates, and (2) graduates receiving the highest salaries immediately afterward. Since the graduates who see a largest salaries tend to be those who receive some marketable technical credential like an engineering or business degree, the ranking discriminates against all other graduates.  

The salaries of liberal arts and sciences graduates do not jump ahead until a decade after graduation.  With training on the job, work experience, and creative, critical thinking, they not only catch up 10 years out; they move ahead of others. They have either much higher salaries paid for business or professional innovation, or they have jobs with important, socially valued responsibilities.  If it is the latter, the salaries may be less impressive, but the contributions can be much greater.

The governor’s simple-minded job calculations cannot capture these subtleties. However, they do identify and reward graduates who meet some corporate needs for immediate employment. In other words, the most corporate-compliant employees needed for maintaining the status quo (while keeping taxes low) will be selected and rewarded.  Meanwhile the movers and shakers of society are discouraged and reduced in number.  Those who would take us to a new level of development must succeed on their own, despite policies of the state.

Which universities are favored by the design of the competition? Legislators had expected it would be University of Florida (UF) and Florida State University (FSU). They were classified as “preeminent” earlier in the session (and given surprisingly small amounts of extra funding for this).  

Is it New College, which is consistently ranked among the top three liberal arts colleges in the nation as best value for cost?  This kind of performance was ignored by the legislators designing the system to measure “excellence.”  

Is it any of our urban campuses, where many students do not fit the residential full-time student model assumed by the criterion of graduate rate? Many students at these schools, including historically excluded minorities, are employed or have family responsibilities, barely managing to take two courses at a time.

Organizing themselves into the Metropolitan University Consortium, the urban universities managed to avert disaster.  When presidents from Florida International University in Miami, University of South Florida in Tampa, and University of Central Florida in Orlando presented their plan to legislators at a hearing, they pointed out that the areas served by Florida’s urban universities constitute over half the citizens who elect the state Legislature.  Legislators understood. Everyone in the room nodded. The deal was done.

The result?  The scoring system was suddenly modified to allow these universities to score second, third, and fourth in the ranking — behind UF and in front of FSU.  (So much for “preeminence.”) To be sure, during the session the score of the political game goes up and down.

Is Florida A & M University (FAMU), the state’s sole historically black public university, to be favored?  The governor and his board could not comprehend that there might be historical reasons why students at FAMU cannot always afford to pay expenses without some semesters, and even years, taken off before graduation.

Should FAMU be punished for this?  Responding to public anger over the idea, those scoring the system suddenly discovered new data for FAMU’s graduation rate. FAMU did not fall into the bottom three.

At the bottom, we find University of West Florida, Florida Atlantic University, and New College, perhaps because they did not have sufficient influence in the legislature.  We know legislators are embarrassed with each revelation about the poor fit of an accountability system that does not correspond with the universities’ constituencies.  The bills are changed with each public uproar.  

The result is mishmash, adjusted to avoid political landmines and preserving as much of a narrowly-conceived corporate agenda as possible, with no one learning anything about what excellence in performance might be. Only some of the largest corporations looking for certain types of employees, plus low taxes, reap the benefits.

Is the governor really pushing a pro-business agenda?  No. He ignores the interests of small business owners who side with educators in promoting policies that fully educate all students (including their own children) and want universities that help grow local economies.

We are faced with a political game.  Everything will be up for grabs again next year. We will see which universities are prepared to play the game and mobilize political support. This is what performance and quality now mean for Florida.

Quality is not a scheme for subtracting money from universities already starved for funds after the state legislature’s disinvestment over the last two decades.  Quality is not subtracting money from Florida’s universities, punishing them because they are not like some other university that they are not like anyway.

UFF opposes the disabling punishments. We oppose the arbitrariness of the system.  We oppose a system that offers only meager rewards. We oppose the political game that pits universities against each other.

We support an authentic recognition of quality.  We support recognizing that every university has a unique mission, a unique set of strengths that could be developed with adequate funding. That is quality. 

 We can effectively challenge and modify this legislation in 2015, if we focus on electing a pro-higher education governor and legislature this November.  Join UFF colleagues across the state to organize for change at the ballot box!