TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – With major legislation and funding issues at stake in the 2017 Legislature, Florida university leaders arrived Wednesday for a two-day meeting in Tallahassee, making their case for additional support for mental health and safety services, research efforts and student aid.
Tom Kuntz, chairman of the Board of Governors, which oversees the 12 state universities, outlined the university system's “safer, smarter, stronger” campaign, emphasizing efforts to retain and graduate students, improve research and reward institutions that have excelled.
Kuntz said performance standards have made a difference in the system.
“It has been extremely effective in raising the quality of our institutions,” he said. “Our retention and graduation rates are up. Our students are graduating with degrees in STEM and other high-demand areas and they are getting jobs.”
At a press conference at the state Capitol, university leaders emphasized their request for additional funding to hire mental health counselors and police officers. Eight of the 12 schools fall below staffing standards for mental health counselors and nine of the institutions fall below the standard of having at least two law enforcement officers for every 1,000 students.
The universities are asking for a $7 million increase for mental health services and $7 million for law enforcement in the 2017-18 state budget.
Timothy Jones, a U.S. Navy veteran who attends the University of West Florida, said counseling services at his school helped him deal with his past as a victim of sexual assault while trying to become a successful student. He said he flunked two classes in his first semester but now is excelling academically and will graduate in May.
“Today my life has been radically transformed,” Jones said. “I was made to feel safe, something every student needs when they come to college.”
Funding for the mental health services and other university system initiatives are now part of the ongoing budget debate between the state House and Senate, where the chambers are taking dramatically different paths.
According to an analysis given to the Board of Governors, which is holding a two-day meeting at Florida A&M University, the Senate budget would increase state funding for universities by $334 million, while the House budget has a $183 million cut.
The House reduction is largely linked to ending the practice of using state funding to support personnel in university foundations, and would require the universities to spend down some of the more than $800 million in reserves the institutions hold.
The Senate budget includes major increases for both research and performance funding.
“The Senate budget is very robust and I think they tried to address all the issues that were discussed this morning,” said John Thrasher, president of Florida State University.
But Thrasher, a former House speaker, said he understood the House's position, noting lawmakers cut university reserves once while he was in the Legislature.
“I understand their concerns about certain areas of the budget,” Thrasher said. “We have tried to address those and certainly during the (budget negotiating) conference we will address them even more.”
The board's comparison of the House and Senate budgets did not include a $320 million increase in student financial aid in the Senate plan, which includes a $180 million increase in Bright Futures merit scholarships and more than a $126 million boost for need-based assistance.
Genevieve Bell, who is finishing her doctorate in neuroscience at FSU, said the “first generation” matching grant program, which the Senate wants to double to more than $10 million, was part of the financial aid that helped her academic career.
“I can unequivocally say that, without the scholarships and grants awarded to me, I could not have attended college and most definitely would not be where I am today,” she said.
The Senate budget would also increase research funding for the universities, providing $75 million for a new “world class scholars” program designed to attract top-level professors and researchers.
Glenn Morris, a researcher and director of the University of Florida's Emerging Pathogens Institute, said the Zika virus threat has underscored “how important it is to have world-class researchers” at Florida universities.
“This is a tropical state. We see stuff here that we don't see anywhere else, so we need to have the capacity to deal with this,” Morris said. “We have the expertise but we need to continue to build on it.”