‘Complacent Legislature’ is stifling FIU’s progress

FIU’s 2015 graduation ceremony feature students from the colleges of Architecture and Arts, Education, Graduate School, Undergraduate Education, and Honors.
FIU’s 2015 graduation ceremony feature students from the colleges of Architecture and Arts, Education, Graduate School, Undergraduate Education, and Honors. THE MIAMI HERALD

This place — Florida International University — is unstoppable!” remarked Stanley Fish, a noted public intellectual, during the school’s 2006 faculty convocation. He was talking about FIU’s meteoric rise to the highest research classification in the year 2000, a mere 28 years after it opened its doors. Now, however, one of the anchor institutions of South Florida has hit a brick wall and is stumbling.  

The derailment began in 2013 when the University of Florida and its passionate supporters got the state Legislature to create a new “elite” state university category called “pre-eminent” universities.

The requirements were skewed in UF’s favor. Of the 12 measures, UF met 12. FIU? 0.

State money then dried up for Miami’s public-research university while an extra $12 million a year went to Gainesville as a reward for UF’s “pre-eminent” status. Another $12 million went to FSU, which joined the elite club thanks to its political clout.

As part of the new package, the Board of Governors then created a new funding formula for state universities, again skewed to favor the older, residential schools as opposed to newer, metropolitan ones, like the University of South Florida, University of Central Florida and FIU.

Residents should know about another legislative initiative that has thrown one more roadblock into FIU’s path.

This year, the Legislature established yet another category of state universities. This time, it was USF that pushed for a new category — the “emerging pre-eminent” university, which met half the criteria, and would receive $5 million a year of additional funding. UCF expects that it will soon meet the criteria to jump on that bandwagon.

This new initiative would leave FIU among the seven little dwarfs of the state university system with no access to special preeminent or emerging preeminent funding and with a funding formula stacked against us.

Large classes and lower paid professors lead to poorer educational options for South Florida students.

What can be done to get us out of this educational basement?

We could appeal to our legislators to change the funding formula to properly reflect the distinct mission of newer, urban universities as opposed to older, residential institutions. This would allow for more funding to be apportioned to FIU, helping us rise to “emerging-preeminent” status.

Or we could toughen up, meet the challenge, achieve “emerging status” and move forward.

This is how we propose to do it — it’s connected to attracting, enrolling and nurturing better students.

The dominant dimension of the new funding formula is the six-year graduation rate, which correlates closely with incoming SAT scores. FIU’s current fall SATs are the lowest in 10 years. Most of the prestigious national rankings such as U.S. News & World Report also use incoming SAT scores to rate the nation’s top 200 universities. FIU does not make the list.

We simply must boost our performance in this metric and admit students who perform better on the SAT. Cutting FIU’s enrollment by 20 percent would accomplish this by redirecting the lowest scoring students and improving first-year retention-graduation rates. Today, FIU brings in about 3,000 freshmen each year. This number would be cut by 600.

The tuition and state funding for 600 students amounts to about $5 million dollars a year. It is roughly the same amount that we would get for achieving second-tier status. However, it might take us years to achieve it.

This funding cut will be painful, but several local institutions have undergone similar cuts — including Miami Dade College and the University of Miami. More recently, FAU tightened enrollment requirements and academic standards to improve the institution’s performance and succeeded.

No pain. No gain. FIU must take the painful step of reducing freshmen enrollment or forget becoming a strong research university.

Another opportunity to improve FIU’s incoming SAT scores is to gradually double the size of its Honors College, whose students’ average SAT score is 200-300 points higher than the average freshmen enrollee. Adding 200-400 honor students would boost the SAT scores of our incoming student body by up to 30 points.

Florida should be proud that the only majority Hispanic, highest research university in the country exists here in Miami. Instead, state policy, a complacent Legislature, an uninformed community and a dormant Board of Trustees have allowed the trajectory of this one-time rising star of higher education to be interrupted and potentially relegated to third-tier status within the state university system. It is time for action.

Modesto A. (Mitch) Maidique is professor of business administration and president emeritus of FIU. Brian Peterson, a professor of history at FIU for 43 years, retired this month.