By Denise-Marie Balona, Orlando Sentinel
Gov. Rick Scott is exploring dramatic higher-education reforms that are similar to those already under way in Florida's public school districts.
Patterned after reforms being championed by Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who recently announced he's running for president, Scott is looking at changing the way professors are paid and moving toward a merit-pay system with limits on tenure.
Texas has been debating such changes to save money and bolster professor productivity — going so far as to consider tying professor pay to how many students they teach and how much research money they bring in.
Instructors would get annual bonuses as high as $10,000 a class if they rated highly on student satisfaction surveys. Even the assignment of faculty offices and parking spaces would be based on their performance.
Such reforms were designed to move Texas colleges toward more of a business model in which students are viewed as consumers purchasing a product — a college degree.
While the proposals have made the Lone Star State a lightening rod in higher-education circles nationwide, Scott said at least some of the ideas might be a good fit for Florida too.
Earlier this year, Florida lawmakers decided to abolish tenure for new grade-school teachers and start paying them based mostly on children's academic performance. College faculty in Florida have warned that those changes would pave the way for similar changes in higher education.
As students and staff returned to classes Monday for the start of the fall semester at most state universities, several lawmakers and college officials said they were open to at least discussing the controversial ideas, which would also impact how college are funded and accredited.
Scott has been quietly promoting the ideas among candidates he's considering appointing to college boards of trustees. He said he has been sharing copies of a report on which the Texas proposals are based — the "Seven Breakthrough Solutions" written by the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a conservative think tank.
"It does get the conversation going," Scott told the Orlando Sentinel recently, although he wouldn't discuss a timetable.
Tom Auxter, president of United Faculty of Florida, the state's faculty union, said the plan is alarming. Florida public universities would become diploma mills with professors taking in as many students as they could, he said.
He worries that some of the state's most talented and prestigious faculty, who sometimes have small classes that work on specialized projects, would leave.
"People are just mortified by it," Auxter said. "The devil is alive and well in those details."
The Texas report also recommends that colleges provide students with "learning contracts" that specifically disclose information about their degree programs, including graduation rates, class sizes and expected starting salaries for their majors.
State Rep. Marlene O'Toole, who's in charge of the House's higher education budget committee, said she expects to learn more about the plan in the coming weeks. Legislative committees will begin meeting next month in preparation for the new legislative session, which begins Jan. 10.
"I'm open for all ideas," said O'Toole, R-Lady Lake. "I think we need to be."
State Sen. Thad Altman, a Brevard County Republican and member of the Senate's higher-education budget committee, is also eager to learn more. He's concerned, though, about any plan to pay professors based on class sizes.
It's tough, he said, to quantify the value of small group instruction.
"We're not manufacturing widgets here — we're trying to give our students a world-class education," he said.
It remains to be seen whether such proposals would catch on in Florida. Just months ago, the state Legislature dropped a plan to ban tenure in state colleges and community colleges after a public outcry from the colleges' presidents.
Scott said he's not sure all the proposals being weighed in Texas would work here. He also couldn't say which, if any, of them he'll push the Florida Legislature to adopt.
He said he's still seeking feedback.
Meanwhile, college leaders elsewhere will be watching to see if Florida follows Texas' lead. Joni Finney, director of the Institute for Research in Higher Education at the University of Pennsylvania, said all states are struggling with the twin challenges of rising enrollment and budget cuts while also working to bolster professor productivity.
Finney said Texas has raised ideas worth discussing. But the governor, she said, shouldn't be butting into college management.
"That's the problem with what Perry is doing — rather than provide the incentives for colleges and universities to reform on their own … his strategy is, 'Here's how we're going to do it,' " she said.
Texas A&M, where Perry graduated, was the first university to road-test one of the Texas proposals. The university came under fire after it posted a spreadsheet online comparing faculty pay against the income they generated either through tuition or research funding.
The move prompted a letter late last year from the Association of American Universities, urging Texas A&M officials to resist "these ill-conceived calls for 'reform.'"
Staff writer Leslie Postal contributed to this report. firstname.lastname@example.org or 407-420-5470.
Copyright © 2011, Orlando Sentinel