Last week, the University of Florida announced that it was axing its computer science department to save about $1.7 million. It’s a budget cut that boggles the mind. Governor Rick Scott is no friend to education in the humanities and, over the past six years, Florida State legislators have cut the budget for the University of Florida by 30%. But computers and the technology industry are — it hardly needs saying — key to our society and lives. Engineers and computer scientists are in short supply and students with training in the STEM fields in high demand.
Steven Salzberg of Forbes points out that, while the budget for computer science research and graduate programs has been entirely eliminated, some other areas of the University of Florida, namely its athletics program, have seen their budgets grow. The university’s athletics budget for the current year is now $99 million, a $2 million increase from the previous year. As Salzberg writes, “Now, I’m not saying that UF has chosen football over science.” But.
Something is going on with higher education, and higher education funding in Florida under Scott. Last Friday, the Republican governor approved the creation of a new university, Florida Polytechnic University, and provided it with a $300 million budget. The new public university will be Florida’s twelfth and will be “carved from Tampa-based University of South Florida,” says the Palm Beach Post. While the university system’s board of governors endorsed the establishment of the new polytechnic university, the Chronicle of Higher Education notes that they had “wanted to wait” to make it a stand-alone university until the new school had reached certain benchmarks, including accreditation and a minimum enrollment of 1,244 full-time students (with at least half majoring in science, technology, engineering and mathematics – or STEM – programs).
Florida Polytechnic University will be located in Lakeland in Polk County, home to Florida Senate budget chief J.D. Alexander and the Republican president of the State Senate. Creating the new university is part of a “legacy” that Alexander had hoped to leave, says the Chronicle of Higher Education. Alexander has supported the budget cuts for higher education in Florida while pushing for the new university in his home territory: Is the creation of this new polytechnic university at the same time as the computer science department is being eliminated from the University of Florida just a coincidence? Are Scott, Alexander and other Florida lawmakers seeking to reconfigure Florida’s public universities with a view to increasing someone’s (their) control over the system, its funds and its programs?
By way of example, consider another reconfiguration of public university facilities and funding by another Republican governor and his political allies. New Jersey governor Chris Christie is planning for the state’s leading public research university, Rutgers, to hand over its campus in Camden to Rowan University. A decade ago, Rowan University was Glassboro State College; it was renamed Rowan College after a businessman, Henry M. Rowan, gave the school $100 million, and then won university status in 1997.
Unlike Rutgers University, Rowan University is not a research university. To many, the merger of Rutgers-Camden with Rowan is tantamount to Rowan taking over another school to acquired coveted research university status and the opportunities for funding and for prestige that come with such. William FitzGerald, an assistant English professor at Rutgers-Camden, writes that the “new Rowan” (with schools of medicine, law, business, nursing and more) will become a “virtual monopoly” of public higher education in southern New Jersey and under the control of “South Jersey’s power brokers,” Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-West Deptford) and South Jersey Democratic political boss George Norcross, a Christie ally.
Perhaps it is not that universities are choosing football over science. In both Florida and New Jersey, Republican governors and state legislators are actively reconfiguring the university landscape at the expense of established research universities and in the image they see fitting for their political interests.
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