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Residing in an alternate STEM universe

Florida Voices
Published:   |   Updated: May 7, 2013 at 03:24 PM

Frequently I'm asked what a state senator does when not in Tallahassee for session or committee weeks. In addition to numerous speaking engagements, media inquiries, visits to schools, prisons and social service providers, we meet with constituents. And some of us communicate through email, Facebook and Twitter.

As the senator from Lakeland, my last nine months have overwhelmingly been focused on my constituents' pleas to save USF Poly from becoming an independent, unaccredited 12th university. I have heard from USF students and faculty, community members, Board of Governors members, other legislators and many members of the media.

While focused on the needs and desires of the folks I represent, I received a Facebook message from a bright student attending the University of Florida.

It arrived a week before Gov. Rick Scott signed a bill separating USF Poly into a separate 12th university, without ever giving its 1,300 students and 100 faculty members the courtesy of a meeting.

Despite overwhelming opposition, the governor said he signed the bill because "the primary mission of educating students in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) will be vital to our economy in the years to come."

My young Facebook friend, who's pursuing a degree in mathematics and biomedical engineering at UF, had a different take on the state's investment in science and technology education: "I'm watching Dean (Cammy) Abernathy getting annihilated in a student town hall meeting about budget cuts to UF College of Engineering. She is looking bad. Also a lot of the information discussed about the state Legislature is unclear."

I explained the cuts are the result of the legislature's poor decision to cut $300 million from our existing 11 universities. Considering the state's new emphasis on STEM education, it's a shortsighted move to cut the budget for UF's College of Engineering.

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He responded with a link to an online petition sent to Abernathy, signed by 8,105 people. It said the dean had proposed eliminating all graduate and research activity from UF's Computer and Information Science and Engineering department. The department has more than 600 bachelor students, 400 masters students, 130 PhD students and 32 tenure-track faculty.

How ironic that the governor who wants to stress STEM education is putting at risk Florida's most established, accredited, research university — with more than 1,000 students in CISE — by approving a $300 million cut to state universities, while defending the creation of a 12th university that has no accreditation or students.

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After the governor signed the bill creating Florida Polytech, my young Facebook friend sent another message: "After all of the USF Poly and CISE nonsense, I feel as if money is a much greater factor in decision making at the top than logic or the general welfare of the people. My solution = Get very wealthy one day and support the logical and genuine political candidates."

Out of the mouths of babes. Governor, you got some 'splaining to do.


Paula Dockery is a term-limited Republican senator from Lakeland who is chronicling her final year in the Florida Senate. She can be reached at pdockery@floridavoices.com.
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