Friday, July 12, 2024

The Good and Bad of FAU’s Evaluation & More DeSantis Vetoes

Florida Atlantic University got some good news last month from the Board of Governors (BOG) but also a warning.

Based on metrics that the state adopted a decade ago, FAU scored a cumulative 84 across the 10-item ranking system for the 2023-24 academic year. That was an increase from the university’s previous score of 82.

In four categories—median wages of graduates after one year of work; net tuition and fees; and bachelor’s and graduate degrees in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM)—FAU got perfect scores of 10. The university also did well in students maintaining academic progress after their first year and the percentage of undergrads on Pell grants.

The weakest areas, though, are related. FAU got only five points for its four-year graduation rate of full-time students. It got four points for the six-year graduation rate for students who entered with Pell grants. And FAU got just one point for the rate of graduation by students who enrolled after getting a two-year degree from a community college.

Those figures underscore the challenge that FAU faces in its role as an institution that draws many students who are the first in their family to attend college. Because FAU is comparatively affordable, it also draws students from Palm Beach and Broward who come from less-affluent families.

That’s why FAU, starting under former President John Kelly, put so much money in support services. Example: Officials would station counselors in parking garages to find students and offer ways to improve their performance.

Still, that 84 did represent an increase, even if it was down from a high of 91 in 2017. FAU’s low point under the system came in 2017, when its score was only 72. 

FAU thus landed in the middle tier of Florida’s 12 public universities. The top tier, predictably, includes the University of Florida and Florida State University, but also Florida International University and the University of South Florida. Their lowest score was 89. The University of Central Florida scored 85. The University of West Florida matched FAU with 84.

And FAU did earn an increase in what the BOG calls “performance-based funding,” based on its score. North Florida, Florida Polytechnic and Florida A&M were placed on the “watch list.” So was the University of Central Florida, because its score has dropped two years in a row. Florida Gulf Coast University, which came in last at 63, must prepare a “student success plan.”

FAU Interim President Stacy Volnick

I submitted questions to Interim FAU President Stacy Volnick through Josh Glanzer, the university’s media relations director. The responses, he said, had been “reviewed and approved by senior leadership.” I have edited them in some cases for length and clarity.

FAU said the 84 points is “the largest single-year increase” in the system,” due to “the ongoing hard work of our faculty and staff…While we are proud of these outcomes, the university has a comprehensive plan to improve in particularly challenging areas, as well as to sustain our improvements in other areas.”

As to the graduation rate, FAU pointed out that it broke 50% for the first time, “an institutional record that we project we will break again next year.” FAU plans to boost the rate “by removing financial hurdles for students and providing targeted academic research and support to students.” Those approaches are in FAU’s accountability plan, which the BOG approved.

FAU attributed the recent rise to financial aid that enables students to attend full-time and “monitoring programs” that the university says increased retention by two percent. More than 300 faculty members have participated in a national development program to improve their teaching skills.

FAU also cites an “enhanced sense of belonging, due to campus life and athletic success, such as men’s basketball with sold-out home games and record attendance at athletic events.”

I also asked about that drop from a high of 91. FAU responded that the state model “awards points based on both excellence and improvement.” In 2021, FAU benefited greatly from a one-year improvement. “Currently, FAU is earning points in the model due to hitting excellence benchmarks.

“While the overall score might be lower, the vast majority of outcomes have continued to increase across the board.”

Volnick has been interim president since January 2023. FAU Trustee Chair Piero Bussani told the BOG that the new presidential search might not produce finalists until early 2025. I asked if Volnick’s status was affecting FAU’s efforts.

“The university continues to follow its strategic plan, and we are doing better than ever in terms of student retention, graduation rate, research expenditures and community engagement.” FAU is “focused on coming together to serve our students, partners and the community.”

Where FAU fell short

The sour note for FAU at the BOG meeting stemmed from the lower rate of nursing students passing licensure exams on their first attempt.

For those at the Boca Raton campus, the rate was 81%. For students at the Davie campus in Broward County, the rate was 69%. FAU’s accountability plan sets a standard of 86%.

FAU said the College of Nursing is “undergoing a leadership change.” The plan to increase the passage rate “has received positive feedback from the Florida Board of Nursing.” According to FAU, the rate for the first quarter of this year was 93%.

Among other things, FAU has raised admissions standards, built “simulation spaces for students to practice clinical skills,” redesigned the curriculum and made tutoring mandatory and required “area-specific practice exams for students with deficiencies.”

Delray city staff to reopen Crest

old school square
The Crest Theatre at Old School Square, photo by Carl Dawson Photography courtesy of the Delray Beach DDA

The Delray Beach City Commission approved City Manager Terrence Moore’s plan for reopening arts classrooms at the Crest Theatre.

During Tuesday’s meeting, the commission allocated money that will allow staff to prepare the classrooms over the summer with reopening “anticipated for fall.” Mayor Tom Carney said, correctly, “I pushed this. I think it’s a great idea.”

Though approval was unanimous, Commissioners Angela Burns and Rob Long said they don’t want the role to be permanent. Long said. “I don’t want to overextend” the staff. He noted, though, that the commission was “out of choices.” All commissioners thanked the staff for taking over.

DeSantis veto limits Department of Health authority to close beaches

Last week, Boca Raton issued a no-swimming advisory for the water off Spanish River Beach.

Perfect timing.

A week earlier, Gov. Ron DeSantis inexplicably vetoed House Bill 165, which would have allowed the Florida Department of Health to close “beach waters” because of health risks and required local governments to notify the department within 24 hours of any potential health risk.

Even in polarized Tallahassee, House Bill 165 epitomized bipartisanship. Two Democrats and two Republicans sponsored and led the bill through the Legislature. Two of them are local: Sen. Lori Berman, who represents parts of Boca Raton, and Rep. Peggy Gossett-Seidman, who represents Boca Raton and Highland Beach. Both chambers passed the bill unanimously.

In his veto message, though, DeSantis cited what he called a “fatal infirmity.” The Department of Health could “supersede” cities and counties that wanted to keep beaches open. DeSantis claimed that the law could allow the closure of “swimming pools.” Granting such power to the state would be “ill-advised.”

Where to start? First, with hypocrisy.

DeSantis has signed many bills that preempt local control to the state, when the preemption suits his interest. The governor prevented local governments from requiring protection for workers. The bill was a priority of the Florida Chamber, a DeSantis ally. He overrode public votes in Key West to restrict cruise ship operations. That request came from a major DeSantis campaign donor.

More likely, this veto arose from the governor’s continuing campaign for president, this time for the 2028 race. When DeSantis was in the 2024 campaign, he got criticism for temporarily closing beaches statewide at the beginning of the pandemic. Department of Health Director Joseph Ladapo agreed with the veto. That’s the same Joseph Ladapo who discourages vaccinations based on bogus evidence.

DeSantis vetoes state regulation of vacation rentals

airbnb
Photo via Adobe Stock

Paradoxically, DeSantis also vetoed legislation that would have preempted regulation of short-term rental properties—also known as vacation rentals—to the state.

Local governments had opposed Senate Bill 280, as they had opposed similar legislation in previous years. Unchecked, short-term rentals can change the character of residential neighborhoods and buildings. The problem is especially acute in Miami Beach, where investors have taken over some condos.

Investor purchases can raise housing costs for year-round residents. This problem also is worldwide. This week, residents of Barcelona, Spain, sprayed tourists with water pistols to protest what they say is excessive tourism and vacation rental purchases that have made housing unaffordable for many. Another factor is large cruise ships, the sentiment that drove Key West residents to limit their operation.

This veto message could have come from the Florida League of Cities. Under the bill, the governor pointed out, any attempt to regular short-term rentals would have had to apply to all residential properties. Vacation rentals, DeSantis said, “should not be approached as a one-size-fits-all issue.”

DeSantis justifies cuts to arts and cultural orgs

Speaking of puzzling vetoes, I wrote previously about the bafflement and anger among cultural groups over DeSantis cancelling all $32 million for such groups statewide. No one could remember a governor doing so.

Last week, DeSantis finally offered sort of an explanation. He claimed that a tiny share of that money could have gone to so-called Fringe festivals. He called such events “like a sexual festival where they’re doing all this stuff.”

DeSantis famously went after venues that offer drag shows, culminating in a 2023 law that punished them if children were allowed. A judge issued an injunction against the law, and the Supreme Court has declined to intervene. If the arts veto was part of the governor’s continued political vendetta, it cost 51 groups in Palm Beach County alone.

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Randy Schultz
Randy Schultz
Randy Schultz, a native of Hartford, Connecticut, has been a South Florida journalist since 1974. He worked for The Miami Herald until 1976 and for The Palm Beach Post from 1976 until 2014, where he served as managing editor and editorial page editor. Since 2014, he has written a politics blog, commentaries and other articles for Boca magazine. His writing has earned first-place awards from the Florida Magazine Association and the Florida Society of Newspaper Editors. Randy has lived in Boca Raton with his wife, Shelley Huff-Schultz, since 1985. His son, daughter-in-law and their three children also live in Boca Raton.

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