Woods: It ain't broke. It's ranked No. 1 in U.S. again. But if governor says it's woke ...

I spent a couple of days last week on the University of South Florida campus. On the drive home from Tampa, I ended up thinking about how the entire state university system has been steadily improving for decades, reaching the point where it is consistently held up as one of the best higher education systems in the nation.

Fun fact about USF: the school was given the “South Florida” name in 1957 because, at the time, it was the southernmost state university in Florida.

Seven decades later, with four of the 12 schools in the State University System of Florida located south of South Florida — Florida Atlantic, Florida Gulf Coast, Florida International and New College — the name makes even less sense than in the 1950s.

But what really doesn’t make sense today is that some of Florida’s political leaders seem hellbent on messing with the state’s higher education system.

What’s the old saying? If it ain’t broke … say it’s woke and you’re going to fix it?

Or something like that, at least in the current state of Florida politics and education.

These are strange times. We have plenty of problems in this state. But if someone had told me five years ago that the next Florida governor would be trying to force significant changes for some of the state’s biggest success stories — from Disney to state universities — I might have said, “What’s next? Taking on Florida’s beaches?”

Actually, between hurricanes, algal blooms and questionable development, our beaches could use some fixing. And we should be constantly looking for ways to improve higher education in Florida. But by all kinds of measures, the state has been consistently doing that for decades, creating a system full of schools on the rise, and enticing Florida students to stay in state for college.

When U.S. News and World Report recently released its 2023-24 “Best College” rankings, Florida had six universities in the top 100 for public universities. And while the revised metrics led to the top-ranked Florida schools slipping a bit — UF at No. 6, Florida State at 23 and USF at 45 — others climbed. FIU achieved its highest-ever rating (64), tying it with UCF. FAMU made the top 100 (91). FAU rose 20 spots to 112 and the University of North Florida moved up three spots to 129.

This comes on top of the Wall Street Journal ranking UF as the top public school in the nation and U.S. News and World Report saying — for the seventh straight year — that Florida has the best overall public university system in the nation.

Some of Florida’s politicians, led by Gov. Ron DeSantis, have managed to simultaneously brag about overseeing the best university system in America — even though this success started before many of them were in power — while railing against it, pledging to get rid of all things “woke,” eliminate diversity programs, change tenure and restrict course content.

'Exodus' from the system

The most dramatic changes have come at New College — with the goal of turning the small, quirky college in Sarasota into what some have called “DeSantis U” — but every one of Florida’s public universities has been affected, not only by actions but by fears.

Presidential searches have become quite secretive, and quite political, leading to the hiring of Ben Sasse at UF, Richard Corcoran at New College and, in the college system, Fred Hawkins at South Florida State College. Hawkins, a former state legislator, had no higher education experience. His background included being charged with impersonating a law enforcement officer at an HOA meeting. It also included him co-sponsoring the bill that gave DeSantis the authority to appoint the board of the district at the heart of the Disney battle.

Politics plus education makes really strange bedfellows.

The Tampa Bay Times recently published a story that included some interesting details about Sasse’s time at UF, his vision for the future (a “north star” beyond rankings) and the negative reaction from faculty.

The story said Sasse wants UF to build a stronger presence around the state — and that he described plans for a Jacksonville graduate campus as “a doodle pad to think about what does it look like to build new programs much faster,” paving the way for expansion into South Florida. (A comment that makes one wonder both about the significance of the Jacksonville campus and how all of this could affect existing schools.)

Across the state, Florida’s public universities keep taking actions, trying to adhere to new state rules and laws and, perhaps as significantly, avoid ending up in the crosshairs of the governor.

Last week the UNF board of trustees approved new tenure rules, requiring tenured professors to undergo post-tenure reviews every five years that put them at risk of losing their jobs. At the trustees meeting, the faculty union president said this could accelerate an “ongoing exodus.”

This isn’t something that’s just happening at UNF because of one issue.

It’s happening across the state for a growing list of issues.

Earlier this year the Tampa Bay Times reviewed records from four of the state’s biggest schools, dating back to 2018, and found an increase in faculty departures. And when the Florida Board of Governors met in March, speakers warned that this is just the beginning.

More than rankings

There certainly are valid reasons to question the U.S. News and World Report rankings, which started in 1983. They're flawed in many ways. But if you’ve been in Florida for a while, you don’t need rankings to see how far the state's public universities have come in the last 40 years.

When we lived in Tampa in the 1990s, I spent time on the USF campus nearly every week, and had friends who worked for USF. I hadn’t been back for decades. I knew it had changed. But I don’t think I realized just how dramatically — the physical campus, student body and academics.

The same is true of UCF. Before we moved to Tampa, we lived in Orlando. My wife, Toni, worked for UCF, doing public relations for the College of Engineering. I covered some UCF football games, at the time played off campus.

When our daughter decided to go to UCF, mainly because of its theater program, we tried to find the building where Toni used to work. It wasn’t easy. In the last 30 years, that campus has exploded. And its growth isn’t just in football. (Although we are looking forward to the upcoming Parents Weekend game against Baylor. Charge On.)

Since moving to Jacksonville in 2001, we’ve seen UNF, which celebrated its 50th anniversary last year, grow and improve. (And I don’t just say this because my wife got her master’s from UNF. Swoop.)

The universities atop the Florida pyramid — UF and FSU — were good schools 40 years ago. But they’ve only gotten better, to the point where I’ve heard many alumni, hoping to see their children follow in their footsteps, say: “I went there when it was much easier to get in.”

Maybe those two schools’ slight slip in the latest rankings of public universities aren’t a big deal — UF fell out of the top five, FSU dropped out of the top 20 — more a sign of a change in the metrics than anything. Maybe rankings in general should be ignored. But you know who does pay attention to them? Parents and prospective students.

Florida has spent decades creating a university system that offers affordable higher education at a mix of schools across the state; a system that has kept many of Florida's best students in state. By all kinds of measures, it is one of Florida's success stories.

It ain’t broke. So there should be concern when current state leaders say they’re going to fix it.

mwoods@jacksonville.com, (904) 359-4212

This article originally appeared on Florida Times-Union: DeSantis trying to fix higher education system that isn't broken