USF Trustees agree to contract with faculty and ponder tuition hike

12/11/08 Seán Kinane
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This morning the University of South Florida Board Of Trustees approved a new contract with its faculty union for the current academic year. The contract was ratified by the union on Wednesday.

Sherman Dorn is an associate professor of education and the president of USF’s chapter of United Faculty of Florida, or UFF. He said 98 percent of employees who voted were in favor of the contract; all members of the bargaining unit were eligible to vote. Under the contract, the university will spend about $150 million per year on faculty salaries, benefits, and other provisions, Dorn said.

“I’m relieved, and I think most of my colleagues are relieved, to have at least a little bit of a raise over the next year, given the current economic circumstances," Dorn said.

Dorn said the university agreed to start a paid parental leave program, which he said would help USF retain young faculty. Dorn also said his union reached an agreement on principle about starting a domestic health insurance stipend program. He said the union will follow up on this in future bargaining.

But it’s unclear whether domestic partner benefits will withstand legal scrutiny in the state. Last month, Florida voters passed Amendment 2, which defined marriage in the Florida Constitution as between “only one man and one woman” and provides that “no other legal union that is treated as marriage or the substantial equivalent thereof shall be valid or recognized.” In May, the Michigan Supreme Court decided that their marriage amendment prohibits public employers like state universities from offering benefits to unmarried couples. Dorn said that if the faculty union and USF finalize details of a domestic partnership benefits program, legal issues may still exist.

“We still need to come up with a structure of a program, and we also have to find a funding source that we can use legally," he said. "But I assume that by the time we come up with a new collective bargaining agreement, at least I hope that would be settled in favor of allowing domestic partner benefits to continue around the state.”

The faculty union and USF have had contentious battles over contracts in the past, including in 2004. Before the USF Board of Trustees unanimously approved the contract with UFF Thursday morning, Provost Ralph Wilcox expressed his appreciation to both bargaining teams.

“They labored long and hard over a period of several months to get us to this point,” Wilcox said.

The USF Trustees also considered future tuition increases and the probability of reduced revenue from the state. Florida’s budget deficit is $2.3 billion this year and is projected to grow next year. That means the share of state funds going to USF and other higher education institutions is expected to continue to decline, USF President Judy Genshaft said.

Last month Gov. Charlie Crist suggested that the Legislature should allow all 11 universities to increase tuition up to 15 percent. If the Legislature goes along with the idea and a school opts to raise tuition, then 30 percent of the extra funds would have to be used to reduce tuition and fees for low-income students. The remaining amount would not be enough to make up declines in funding from the state, Genshaft said, but all state university presidents “believe this is a step in the right direction.”

Provost Ralph Wilcox said that a tuition increase will be considered.

A report by the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education released earlier this month concluded that although Florida state universities have among the lowest tuitions in the country, the state ranks near the bottom in affordability. Genshaft said that report would not deter her from considering further tuition increases at USF.

Wilcox said tuition is only a small fraction of the total cost of going to college and praised the governor’s tuition increase plan because of how it could help lower-income students.

State Rep. Ray Sansom accepted a $110,000 per year position at Northwest Florida State College on the day he became Speaker of the House last month. Sansom, a Republican from Destin, helped appropriate more than $25 million to the school earlier this year. Several newspaper editorials and the chair of the Florida Democratic Party have called on Sansom to resign one or both positions.

WMNF asked Genshaft whether Sansom’s pattern of steering state funds to Northwest Florida State College might have decreased the amount of funding available to other schools like USF.

“We all are working together to make sure that we are funded as best as possible given the scenario that the state is dealing with right now. I know that we have legislators very concerned about higher education. And all we can do is work together and make a difference.”

The next regular USF Board of Trustees meeting will be on March 12th.

United Faculty of Florida at USF

USF Board of Trustees

University of South Florida

Previous WMNF coverage of USF/UFF contract issues

Previous WMNF coverage of Michigan ruling on domestic partner benefits

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Professor of Education, USF; President, UFF-USF

Thank you for covering the new contract between USF and the United Faculty of Florida. One correction: UFF never considered a strike in 2004; the Florida constitution prohibits strikes by public employees.