by Amy Keller
Updated 5 months ago
Marshall Criser III, the chancellor of the State University System of Florida who for the past eight years played a leading role in elevating the state’s public institutions to national prominence, today announced his plan to retire at the end of the year.
Criser, the former president of AT&T Florida who was tapped for the role at a time when universities moved to play a more central role in the state’s economic development, told the Florida Board of Governors on Thursday that he felt it was time a good time to step away when his current contract ends.
“I didn’t particularly have a target end date, but I also feel we have reached a place in this system where we have made incredible change, and some very positive ones for students in Florida, and I feel now is the right time for my board to prepare for a transition,” Criser told Florida Trend in a recent interview.
Brian Lamb, chair of the Florida Board of Governors, credited the outgoing chancellor with “transforming what higher education looks like for the SUS in Florida” by leading a charge that has boosted retention and graduation retention rates, kept tuition in check and catapulted the state to the number one spot on U.S. News & World Report’s rankings for higher education for last five years.
“Being the number one ranked state university system in the country is just something we have to recognize. A lot of the success that’s the underpinning for that recognition happened because of Marshall’s leadership and the role he helped play with the universities across the state with our legislature and governor,” Lamb told Florida Trend. “If you were the CEO of a publicly-traded company and you were retiring, all of those would be part of the highlights that shareholders on Wall Street would celebrate.”
Criser, 63, attributes much of the system’s success to the implementation of performance-based funding at the 12 public institutions, a business-like financing strategy for higher-education that rewards schools for the outcomes they achieve. Under the performance-based model, annual state funding is tied to schools’ performance on several predetermined metrics, such as graduation rates, median wages of graduates, the percentage of degrees awarded in specific areas, among others.
“We knew that we needed to come up with a different discussion with our elected officials about the importance of higher education and particularly the university system and we pivoted away from the old mechanism, which was to basically be funded by your headcount and asked to be funded based on our results,” Criser says. “A big element of why I believe we’re in a stronger place today is this move to a system where accountability and transparency and outcomes — rather than inputs — are what the state’s investing in.”
State funding of higher education has increased by about $1.2 billion (nearly 30%) since the implementation of performance-based funding, Criser says, allowing the university system to effectively keep tuition and fees flat and giving Florida students “one of the best deals in higher education anywhere.” Indeed, with an average tuition of $6,366, Florida is the second lowest state in the nation after Wyoming for tuition and fees at a four-year state university, according to the non-profit College Board, and after factoring in financial aid and scholarships, the SUS says the average cost to students is only about $3,400
The outgoing chancellor says he’s also proud of efforts the SUS has made to better align degree production with employers’ workforce needs. “I believe when I came in there was maybe an attitude of we were responsible for education but what happened after our students graduated wasn’t necessarily on our list —and we put it on our list and we said it’s important and today we’re connecting a lot more students with degrees that Florida’s employers are asking us to fill,” Criser says.
Recent years, though, have not been without controversy on Florida university campuses with faculty raising concerns about political interference from Tallahassee around issues of tenure, the freedom of professors to serve as expert witnesses in cases involving the state, and the independent accreditation of the academic institutions.
Criser – a Palm Beach native who graduated from the University of Florida and whose father, Marshall Criser, served as UF’s president from 1984 to 1989 – emphasized that the accomplishments made during his tenure were a team effort. "A lot of these things were not 'I' things. They wouldn't have happened without the Board of Governors, the staff that we have and without the support of the governor and legislature," Criser says adding that the BOG has been "the greatest think tank in the world."
When asked what’s next, Criser says he has no concrete plans. “When I came into this job, I had been 33 years at AT&T. I had accomplished what I’d always aimed for, which was to be the state president [of the company] in Florida,” says Criser. “When I made that change, I really was not looking for something specific, I think I was realizing I had accomplished what I had set out to do and I like the idea of being challenged — so I want to challenge myself again.”
Meanwhile, as the BOG begins its search for Criser’s successor, political news sites have been swirling with speculation that state Sen. Ray Rodrigues (R-Estero) may be a candidate for the job. Rodrigues, who dropped his Senate reelection bid week before last, was a co-sponsor of legislation recently signed into law that would require state colleges and universities to seek new accreditors and change the way schools review professors’ tenure.
Meanwhile, there are also three vacant presidencies across the state university system: UF, Florida Gulf Coast University and Florida International University.