Universities say new money helps with faculty, courses

By Lloyd Dunkelberger, News Service of Florida
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TALLAHASSEE, Fla. - Florida universities are hiring more faculty, providing more scholarships and expanding course offerings and academic counseling with a $121 million boost in funding provided by the Legislature this year.

In letters to Gov. Rick Scott, the 12 state university presidents outlined plans for using their shares of $71 million in the “world class faculty and scholar” program and $50 million in a new program designed to improve “the quality and excellence” of medical, law and business graduate schools.

Although the funding was included in the $82 billion state budget for 2017-18, a shadow was cast over the new programs when Scott vetoed a policy bill that would have made more permanent the world-class scholar and graduate-school initiatives.

In a letter to each university last month, Scott urged the schools to “spend the funds judiciously and invest this funding in initiatives that will help your students graduate in four years with less debt and the ability to get a great job.”

And he noted that although the programs were designed to be in place for subsequent years, funding for the future was “uncertain” because of the rejection of the policy bill.

Scott gave the schools until this week to explain how they would use the money in the new academic year, which began July 1.

John Kelly, president of Florida Atlantic University, said the $6.6 million his school received, along with $19 million in performance funding, is being used to hire new deans and research directors. He also said the addition of new faculty has helped Florida Atlantic increase its summer course offerings by 10 percent since 2013.

“Students are more likely to graduate in four years if they are able to take courses year-round,” Kelly told the governor.

At the University of Central Florida, president John Hitt said $12 million of the $15.7 million his school received will go toward hiring 75 faculty members in “strategic” programs, including engineering and technology.

Increases in faculty have helped UCF reduce the overall class-size average to less than 30 students for the first time since 2008 and has helped the school lift its four-year graduation rate from 40 to 44 percent in the last year, Hitt said.

Already targeting low-income students, Hitt said $1.5 million of the new funding will go for more undergraduate scholarships and $1 million will be used to improve stipends for doctoral assistantships.

“These initiatives will help improve our retention and graduation rates, as well as reduce student debt,” Hitt told Scott.

Kent Fuchs, president of the University of Florida, said the $27 million that his school received will help with a recently announced long-range plan to add 500 faculty positions. The additional faculty members are expected to help UF reduce its class sizes from 20 students per instructor to around 16, which Fuchs said is the average for top public research universities.

“This will increase our students' access to outstanding faculty, provide additional classes and improve our four-year graduation rate,” Fuchs said.

At Florida State University, President John Thrasher said the $21 million his school received will help add faculty, expand course offerings and reduce class sizes in “key” undergraduate courses such as chemistry and math.

Thrasher also said the funding will be used to improve the readiness of students for the job market “through expanding career advising in our nationally recognized career center and increasing student engagement in internships, faculty research and other career building experiences.”

Thrasher thanked Scott for supporting a major expansion of Bright Futures merit scholarships and need-based financial aid this year, although the authority for some of those initiatives was also complicated by the veto of the higher-education policy bill.

Mark Rosenberg, president of Florida International University, said his school would use its $16 million in funding for recruiting faculty, offering more “hybrid” courses, which include online as well as classroom teaching, and improving technology to track student progress.

He also said the money would be used for more undergraduate scholarships as well as financial aid for law- and medical-school students.

“These investments are intended to improve four-year graduation rates, timely career counseling and placement and intensified educational opportunities to counsel and advise students on minimizing debt,” Rosenberg said.

News Service of Florida