House Speaker Will Weatherford clarified his stance Tuesday on overhauling the state’s approach to online higher education, emphasizing that he would not push for an actual 13th university focused on web-based education.
But in remarks at a panel discussion held by the Orlando Sentinel and the University of Central Florida Metro Center, Weatherford (R-Wesley Chapel) made it clear that he still sees the Internet as a critical part of higher education’s future.
“I don’t know what the end game is going to be, but it’s not going to be creating some unbranded university or unaccredited university, because I think that would be a waste of everybody’s time and money,” Weatherford said. “But it will be pushing the envelope a little bit to get more people exposed to online learning.”
Instead, Weatherford suggested that the state create some entity “that is solely focused on creating the best platform, the best content at the most affordable price” — but not another university.
Tico Perez, a fellow member of Tuesday’s panel whose term on the Board of Governors recently expired, backed that approach.
“It’s really a matter of, I think, the board of governors’ or the Legislature’s, as I said, anointing or appointing someone to be in charge of that system of coordination, because that 13th university appetite is waning for many,” he said.
Weatherford’s comments seemed to be at odds with what he said during a radio interview in February, when he appeared to call for the creation of a new institution housed entirely online.
“On the heels of the Polytechnic debate, and I think that’s going to be the 12th university of the state, my thought was, if we were ever going to build a 13th university and whether that’s today or in five years, it should be an online university, because the capacity is limitless,” he said then.
Weatherford was referring to the Legislature’s decision to split the University of South Florida’s Lakeland campus into a stand-alone Florida Polytechnic University at the behest of then-Senate Budget Chair JD Alexander (R-Lake Wales). In his remarks Tuesday, the speaker seemed to refer back to that controversy.
“We’re not trying to go out and create a brand new, unbranded, unaccredited university,” Weatherford said. “Think we just created one of those. I’m not really sure how it’s working out.”
Weatherford said increasing online education could help drive down the cost of a degree, dovetailing with Gov. Rick Scott’s push to lower tuition. But Weatherford also indicated that he believed some universities, such as the University of Florida and Florida State University, shouldn’t focus as sharply on affordability, a stance that could put him at odds with the governor.
Last year, Scott vetoed a bill that would have allowed UF and FSU to increase tuition by virtually unlimited amounts.
“Tuition should be cheap if you’re going to a state and community college,” Weatherford said. “It should be cheap if you’re going to a non-research-based institution, but it should not be cheap if you’re going to a research university in the state of Florida.”
Weatherford vowed to restore the $300 million cut that universities absorbed last year. At the time, lawmakers said it was a one-time reduction and told universities they should use their reserves to cover the cut.
“The Legislature’s going to restore that money this year,” Weatherford said. “You’ll see in our budget this year that $300 million will be restored. And hopefully we’ll have more money than that.”