Chancellor of the State University System of Florida Marshall Criser III is this week’s featured guest. In our conversation, we talk about how the State University System advocates for Florida’s universities and their many needs in the fairest possible way. We also discuss preeminence funding, college affordability, working with the business community, technology advancements in higher education and about how Marshall’s work as president of AT&T of Florida helped prepare him for his current role.
Chris Cate: Welcome to the Fluent in Floridian podcast, featuring the Sunshine State’s brightest leaders, talking about the issues most important to the people of Florida and its millions of weekly visitors. I’m your host, Chris Cate, and in this episode created by SalterMitchell PR, I talk to the Chancellor of the State University System of Florida, Marshall Criser. In our conversation, we talk about how the State University System advocates for our universities and their many needs. We also discuss preeminence funding, college affordability, working with the [00:00:30] business community, technology, and about how Marshall’s work as president of AT&T of Florida helped prepare him for his current role, and you can hear it all right now.
Marshall, thanks so much for being on the show. I’m not sure how many of our listeners know exactly what role the State University System plays in Florida, so can you start by describing the job of the University System in our state and why it’s so important?
Marshall Criser: Sure. What’s probably most obvious to people is one of our 12 universities, which may either [00:01:00] be part of their community or a school that they went to, and where the system comes in is to providing, I guess, sort of an overarching strategic plan for how we want higher education, particularly our state universities, to serve our students and our taxpayers because we are public institutions and we have an obligation to both. What we try to find is the right balance between encouraging [00:01:30] and really celebrating some of the entrepreneurial and creative and very, I think, often very exemplary activities are going on in 12 institutions. We don’t want to lose that spirit of individuality, but at the same time there are some things that are important like graduation rate. Like, how are we taking care of our students once we recruit them? Are we making sure that students have an opportunity to really achieve their goals? When we look at that from a system perspective, we’re able to try to think [00:02:00] about what are best practices between institutions and how we can work closer together.
We’ve also learned collectively with the institutions, that we’re stronger when we act as a system than when we necessarily act as individual institutions, and the example I would give you, so if you imagine, say, a research grant that we’re trying to pursue in Washington and you now have two or three institutions working together maybe bringing top [00:02:30] people, we don’t have to replicate two or three times, but we’re able to bring a team together with the best of the best from those institutions.
Number one, that makes us more competitive as researchers. Number two, it allows us to go to the Florida Congressional Delegation and talk to them with one voice about why that’s important, and we may be competing against another state. Three, when that comes back to Florida, we are gonna be influencing and effecting economically as well as academically more communities when we do it. There’s the strength [00:03:00] of the united system working together. Builds on the strength of the individual through all institutions.
Chris Cate: Is what we have in Florida kind of standard across the U.S. with a lot of other states have or is there something unique about Florida system?
Marshall Criser: There really isn’t a single system model around the country. We’ve spent time studying the way different systems are presented. Some states have essentially one university [00:03:30] with satellites. Other states have done things to buy for [inaudible 00:03:35]. California, for example, has two systems. One, which sort of targets the top achieving students coming out of high school. The other one, which is for other students coming out of their high schools.
A lot of different approaches to how you approach higher ed. If you think about what Florida does, I think incredibly well, we have a combination of a dual governance model where again, we [00:04:00] have a state system and a board of governors, but we also have local board of trustees. By local, I don’t mean that they’re all from a local community but that each university has its own Board of Trustees. That gives us the ability to be strategic but also have individuals who are very close and dedicated to the success of an individual institution, while others are focused on the success of the overall system.
One thing that Florida has stood out now since probably 1970s is actually we’re a national model for [00:04:30] how well our universities work with our state colleges. Years ago, some very smart people realized that we needed to create a path for students. We call it 2 + 2, where someone can go to a state college for the first two years, sixty hours of their education, and have a pretty seamless path for them to transfer into a university to get a undergraduate degree. We are stronger because we are able to create more pathways for our students and our families make some of those more affordable. [00:05:00] But we’re stronger also because we’re more inclusive of our students in order to be able to get to a university and get a undergraduate degree.
Chris Cate: Your father, who was a Florida leader in his own right, served as President of the University of Florida. How much have you been able to learn from him and did he help draw you to your work in higher education?
Marshall Criser: I think without a doubt. I’d said both of my parents put a premium on education. In fact, before he left the practice [00:05:30] of law and went to the University of Florida, my dad also did a lot of work for the local school board. From education, I think somewhere there’s a passion for him. It was a long time passion for me. It was an opportunity even when I was in the corporate side. I happened to benefit from the fact that I worked for a corporation that really valued education. For me to be involved in education was seen as adding value. It’s kind of built from that.
I think the other way around I would look at it is, [00:06:00] I didn’t really understand when he chose to leave what was a pretty successful law practice and go become a university president in 1984. Could not understand why my parents would make a decision like that. When I later made something similar of a decision in 2014, I suddenly understood what it was all about. I do think it was the fact that you see something that you think is vital and important. [00:06:30] You want to somehow want to have as much of an effect in making it stronger, better for our students. At least from that perspective … I think in hindsight, he’s probably had as much of an influence on me as anybody else.
Chris Cate: You spent most of your career prior to the university system with AT&T, which isn’t an obvious training grown to become Chancellor of the University System but can you tell me how that work did prepare you for what you’re doing right now?
Marshall Criser: I think a couple of things. The experience I had [00:07:00] and I originally was part of, without going into the history of the telephone company, but 33 years starting with Southern Bell, Bell South, and then ultimately AT&T. A couple of things that came from it. One is that passion for education was always part of our corporate psyche. That was something that was always important to my employer and I think that was something that made my employer attractive for me.
The other thing is, you’re dealing in a large, multifunctional organization. There [00:07:30] are people who you report to and people who report to you. But the more important thing in the corporate world is also understanding how to work across lines of organization with other parts of the business. When you look at that coming into a government job, again, a large entity, but the important part of this is not so much where the lines are drawn, but how you work and how well you work with people in different sectors. Not just working, in this case, with the colleges or the private universities [00:08:00] but also working with groups like the Department of Economic Opportunity, Career Source. I think one of the passions to this is how well do we connect our education discussion with the needs of our business communities.
We’re working with the other organizations in the state that are also responsible for job development. Then we work very closely with the business community and some of the organizations that I had a privilege to be a part of in the past, such as the Chamber of Commerce, [00:08:30] the Council of 100, Tax Watch, Enterprise Florida. I’m gonna get somebody mad at me if I forget one. But through those connections, trying to strengthen the conversation that we have between the education community, the business community, and the agencies in Tallahassee that are dedicated, also, to building and strengthening our state as an economic powerhouse in the country.
Chris Cate: Yeah. I’d like to expand on that if you will because I know a big push for [00:09:00] the university system is increasing that collaboration with the business community. See can you tell me a little bit more about those efforts to build engagement in that area?
Marshall Criser: Sure. We developed, I call it a campaign. You can call it a conversation. You can call it an awareness of but we call it Think Florida. A little bit of a double meaning to that. But what we want businesses to do is think about Florida as the place to come for talent. At the same time, we want our university [00:09:30] community to think about Florida as the place where we are developing our students for their potential careers and their potential opportunities.
It is taken on a couple of manifestations. One is the conversation idea that we actually work closely with the business community to understand what they need, in terms of our students, and what they can contribute to us for our students, in terms of things like internships and ultimately talking to our students about jobs.
[00:10:00] The other piece of it is to kind of tie back to this idea of where a system comes into play. We’ve now created a portal. Our website’s think-florida.org, if I’m allowed to plug it. If you go to that, you can go to … You pull down the tab for “recruit” and you can then pull up a tab for graduates and interns.
What we’ve now done is in the past, if a business wanted to look at or talk to one of our universities [00:10:30] about graduates, they’d have to find that university, that website, click the right spots, and work their way into that conversation with that university. We now have all 12 universities in one location. You can pick one or all. We have some simple choices in terms of general things that people would normally want to look for. As well as you can put some short information in about what you’re specifically interested in. What we are doing is kind of a concierge service, where [00:11:00] if you’re interested in our students and graduates or our universities, we want to make it easy for you to find us. We want to help you along the way to start the conversation between our career resource centers and businesses. So that we are better connected, better serving not only to our students, but also to the business community when we do that. That’s the way we want people to think about Florida.
Chris Cate: Since taking the job as Chancellor, what has been the biggest challenge that you have taken upon yourself to fix or improve?
Marshall Criser: I think that [00:11:30] the opportunity we’ve had is to really understand the change in the conversation that we need to have with our policy makers. We use the word accountability a lot. I said it earlier but we have a responsibility to our students but we also have a responsibility to the tax payers in Florida because we are public institutions and we are supported by our state.
It is, I think, no longer sufficient just to expect that the state will fund [00:12:00] us but to really help people to understand that we have a set of goals. We focus on retention. We focus on graduation. We focus on the success between connecting a degree and a job. We focus on whether or not we are producing the degrees that our employers tell us they need in our state. As a result of that, we’ve received significant financial report. Because we’ve basically put out a report card about how we’re going to do when meeting those objectives.
I [00:12:30] think in the process of doing that, we’ve also … I call in myth busters. We sort of knock out some of those things that people assumed were reasons why we couldn’t do better. Examples of that would be to think about, if we’re talking about graduation rate, then someone would want you to focus on how many part-time students they have. Part-time students are incredibly valuable. Those are students who may not have the opportunity to be full-time. But what they’re not really understanding I think in some cases, is that [00:13:00] when I first took a look at this, I think we had almost a part-time mentality. We were applying that to everyone. What we want to have is more of a full-time mentality and apply that to everyone and enable all of our students to complete a degree as soon or as quickly as they’re able to do it. That has a tremendous value for them because it puts them into the workforce sooner. It shortens some of the costs that they have to pay.
It’s not just sort of how long it takes you to get a degree but how many hours are you taking in order to complete a degree. [00:13:30] Are they properly focused? It’s a level of being more accountable to ourselves, being more accountable to our students, being more accountable to the tax payers in our state, and they elected officials who make decisions based on that. Has really had a tremendous effect. Now it may be somewhat of a draw but we just announced this week that the University of Florida is now moved into the top 10 at U.S. News and World Report. Florida State University has [00:14:00] just jumped five points up to number 33 in the same study. We have the University of South Florida and the University of Central Florida all in the top 100 now.
You can actually look at the progress that those institutions have made in the four years that we’ve had this accountability conversation and I believe that it’s because of the focus on accountability but equally important is the level of financial support we [00:14:30] receive from our elected leaders from Governor Scott and from the legislature based on making those kinds of improvements. Those are the types of things that … It’s nice to be in a magazine. It’s important to be in it but we’re all competitive. We all want to be the best we can be. I think it’s even more important when you look behind those rankings at the changes that have happened in terms of our focus on student success. That’s really a measure of the kind of progress we’re making.
Chris Cate: All [00:15:00] schools have needs but there’s only so much money to go around. How do you advocate those needs to the legislature fairly among all the different universities?
Marshall Criser: It’s always an interesting process. I talked about that sort of we have individuality and then we have a collective sense. From a board level, we begin a conversation every year with the universities about what’s important to them. As a result of that, we have developed an agenda around developing [00:15:30] our research prowess and our resources in the state. It’s an area that I think Florida has an opportunity to get even stronger at. University research has been a focus for us. We’ve had an agenda for the last couple of years talking about campus safety and mental health. That again came to us from the universities, from our student affairs, vice-presidents.
We’ve also looked at agendas very specifically in areas like nursing, where we’ve had conversations [00:16:00] about the whole health care process in the state. It’s an area where one, employer tells us we need more nurses and two, our universities are working on ways to be able to sort of increase our productions in those areas.
What we try to do from a system level is start a conversation with the universities about what’s most important to them and all of these things really have bubbled up. At the same time, we have continued to advocate for performance funding [00:16:30] around our accountability agenda. I think that is one that is benefiting our system tremendously.
But we respect the fact at the end of the day, the legislature and ultimately the governor make the decision about balancing a budget. I guess from the day I walked in here, one of the observations I use to bore people with, maybe I’ll do it again, is that if you’re a road builder, you can go to the legislature and you can explain [00:17:00] for every mile of asphalt that gets paid for and poured in Florida, what’s that going to do to create jobs? What’s that going to do to create economic vitality in the community? What are all the benefits that you can do?
We can’t sit back and hope that people understand that when you invest that same dollar in higher education, what it’s going to do for our state. Unless we have this accountability conversation. I think what we’ve done as a system now has gotten much better. Sort of get pass your [00:17:30] local conversation or your alumni conversation and our elected leaders have become passionate about our opportunity to raise the bar in Florida. So that we see more students succeeding at our universities and well as our colleges. We see more students succeeding when they graduate and they move into the workforce. That’s our opportunity as a system really to continue to move forward.
Chris Cate: I know FSU, UF, and now South Florida are preeminent universities. [00:18:00] Can you explain what preeminent funding is? How it’s distributed and what it looks like in the future for Florida universities?
Marshall Criser: I’d start with the legislature developed a construct for preeminence. There are 12 metrics that the universities must meet at least 11 of the 12 to qualify for preeminence. It is not a one time and then you’re done. You have to maintain that level of performance as you go forward. I think it [00:18:30] rightfully recognized the value of investing in having a brand. That we inspire to have preeminent universities that will compete not only within our state, but on a national level.
That we are going to draw people to our state as a result of the quality of the higher education that we have. As the universities, the funding that has been specific to that, has been a [00:19:00] lot of good examples of it. In fact, in the past year, very strong commitments made, for example, hiring more faculty, and increasing the prestige and preeminence of the faculties themselves, which interesting in its own way, is a way of drawing money to Florida. Because particularly, when you’re looking at research faculty, when you can go recruit top people to your state, they also already bring with them grants and other projects that they’re working on. They bring with them teams of [00:19:30] people who are working in those areas. It has a multiple effect as you do that kind of recruiting.
It’s a way to build a standard and a bar for our state that says one, we put a high value on higher education in great higher education. It is something that creates and incentive for our universities to aspire to. We will be working our way … I guess one pause and say we will now be considering USF, which has [00:20:00] announced that they believe they’ve met the metrics. My board will need to make a determination that in fact, they’ve reached preeminence but that would make them eligible next year for the funding.
I will defer to the legislature and the governor. I always recognize that they’ve got a balance to budget. Looking forward on preeminence funding, I will say it’s important. I think that is has definitely built dividends. If we go back again, [00:20:30] looking at what we’ve now achieved in terms of national prominence in the rankings of our universities, it’s important for that. I think that is obviously a part of the annual conversation we had with the legislature and the governor about what we do; how we do; where we focus our investment.
I think what’s positive about that Life Performance Funding is also an important part of that calculation, is all of those are [00:21:00] based on our ability to achieve and then maintain the level of performance that is in preeminence case, it say you gotta be well above average. That’s a good thing and that’s a good signal to send. We should all be aspiring to always be well above. In fact, I like the idea of we need to be first.
Chris Cate: Universities aren’t only expensive for the state but for students themselves attending the college. Even though I think [00:21:30] Florida’s average college is actually lower than most others. With that being said, how do we keep those costs in check for students moving forward and can you talk a little bit more about the future of programs like Bright Futures?
Marshall Criser: Sure. I think that there’s been a tremendous amount of attention in this state in making higher education affordable for our students. In fact, if you go back to 2014, when Governor Scott and legislature made some adjustments to tuition deferential, one of the big [00:22:00] dividends of that was the fact that Florida prepaid scholarships became significantly less expensive for Florida families. Interesting is a lot of levers you can work on, in terms of affordability, but that was one of the most significant policy changes that led to a very measurable result benefit to our families and our students. We can incentivize families to prepare and save and do it at a level where hopefully then can afford to do it.
[00:22:30] We continue to focus on keeping the cost to our students low. In the past year, one of the main developments and discussions that our board had within our performance funding metrics, is we’ve modified one of our metrics to recognize that the number of hours it takes to get a degree is also a part of the cost of your education. It is important for us to work with our students. Not that students [00:23:00] can’t change their mind and many students do change their mind about what degree they’re pursuing, but we’ve gotta tighten up in some cases, the number of hours it’s taking us to actually complete and get a degree. That’s another way of controlling costs.
Our board has been very attentive to the cost of housing and understanding every time a decisions made about dorms, the first question is always, “What’s the impact on students?” We are thinking about [00:23:30] how these things affect our students. Let me wrap it back up with in Bright Futures has for a long time been an important tool that the state has had. It didn’t really start from an affordability perspective, as much as it’s really a retention mechanism. Bright Futures is and was intended to retain our best and brightest students here in Florida. I think that we’ve had great success this past year through the governor and the [00:24:00] legislature.
Senator Negron set a precedence. Senator Negron has had as one of his focuses to increase the support for Bright Futures eligible students. A big discussion that we’ve been having now and I’m hopeful that in the next year, I know it’s going to be back up in the discussion of the legislature about Summer Bright Futures. Restarting that so that our students have the same ability through three semesters. Again, helping students to complete their degree sooner, [00:24:30] where we have no financial disincentive to attending your summer semester. I think that’s been an important criteria for our board.
Then I look at the other things that we’re doing in the state. Discussion around doing things for first generation students. Finally, what we shouldn’t ever underestimate is how much our institutions do on their own initiative to assist our students with [00:25:00] the cost of education. The amount of institutional support that we have particularly focused on … It really is very targeted to actual student circumstance, where they can work individually with the student. Help them feel in the gaps. Work with them on financial aid. Not only on the front end but I’ve seen more and more on the backend.
A good example, University of West Florida started working with students who were in their junior or senior year, who had found that [00:25:30] those students were saying, “That I need to work. So, I can’t take as many hours.” So not only did they sit down with them and said, “How much could you stop working? What would it take for you to be able to cut back on your work hours and take more hours and complete your degree?” We’re thinking about financial aid as solving problems. Being focused on a individual student’s circumstance, which again brings us back to that idea in getting a degree and getting into the workforce is probably one the [00:26:00] major opportunities we have to serve our state.
Chris Cate: How have advances in technology changed higher education in Florida, including the increasing popularity of being able to take online classes?
Marshall Criser: Yeah. I think there’s two sides to changes in technology. Number one and maybe this is a parallel to my former career, technology changes everything. It is the great … It will [00:26:30] cross all divides and we need to not only understand, but really embrace the opportunity to use technology smartly in providing education. What we are finding through online education, and our board actually … And I think we may still be one of if not the first state to actually have a system strategic plan for online learning. We don’t want to get there by accident. We should be able [00:27:00] with technology to understand what synergies we have as a system. You don’t need to do everything 12 times. But you need to do things very, very well. You need to maintain quality. You need to create an experience for a student that is at least as good as what they would expect from the traditional residential experience at a university.
We’re gonna create access to people who might otherwise not have access [00:27:30] to a university simply because we can cross geographic boundaries and make that education available to them. The state funded a few years ago UF Online as a all online undergraduate program. The state also funded a program called Complete Florida, which is working with individuals who started post-secondary education and at some point stopped. What we’re doing now is reaching out to them and using online as a way to finish and complete a degree.
At [00:28:00] the same time, we’re seeing a blend of something called Hybrid but it literally is a blend of students who will chose to take some courses online, some courses face to face. Sometimes it’s a course you take online during the summer when you have a job but it allows you to knock out another three or four hours. Sometimes it’s a course you take on campus while you’re going to your other two, three, four courses. But because of the way the schedule [00:28:30] worked out, you can pick up that online course at a different time is a little bit more flexibility and allows the student to round out the course work that they want to take.
In long term, it will help us rethink what a campus needs to be and what it looks like. In the past, a classroom if you think about it, go back to my dinosaur age, [00:29:00] a classroom was a box inside a box with desks. At the front was a podium and a green thing on the blackboard. Now a classroom could be a hallway that’s equipped with Wi-Fi and a seating pod, where a professor sits or a group of … Maybe there’s not even the professor involved but there’s a group of students working together in a study group.
We can think about how we transform our physical infer structure that [00:29:30] we use technology to make the learning experience more ubiquitous on our campuses. We can the learning experience more ubiquitous across our state and we can also allow it to be, if the term will still apply, to be ubiquitous to your entire life. Because perhaps you were at a campus and you got your degree and now you’re in the workforce and you’re looking … And for a while now, we’ve had graduate programs online where someone can continue their education for the rest of their life.
At the [00:30:00] same time, you look at employers. Many, many employers use online training in their workforce. We are also developing a familiarity, not just for students who’ll actually go into IT world, but really helping people to better understand how you use the tools that are available to you. To grow and strengthen not only your own knowledge, but maybe that knowledge of someone else.
Chris Cate: It sounds like there’s very exciting things ahead [00:30:30] in terms of technology. I do want to close now with the four questions that I ask every guest. The first being, who’s the Florida leader that you admire? It could be someone from Florida’s past or a current Florida leader.
Marshall Criser: You ask me a question about my dad. Clearly and influence there. I would say I have a job … You kind of said something. You said this about the system but I would also say I have a job that sort of most people [00:31:00] have no idea what a Chancellor is but I’ve had the privilege in my life to have worked with and known Frank Brogan, Mark Rosenberg, Charlie Reed, E.T. York. Chancellors.
See this is where I’ll stop. Adam Herbert jumped in my head too and I could probably keep going. I think that’s somewhat unique to [00:31:30] actually have had a chance to know and really respect a group of individuals who all did a job that I now do. When I was looking at this opportunity, it was not something that was on my game plan. But when this became an opportunity for me to look at, I stopped and really thought about what I knew about each one of those individuals and what did I think that they had brought to this job. If I could magically sort of pick and choose [00:32:00] all those best attributes and lump them in one bucket, that would be the thing I aspire to. For me, it was helpful to know people that I thought had done a good job at something that I wanted to do a good job at.
Chris Cate: What is something in Florida that deserves more attention than what it’s getting right now?
Marshall Criser: I think there’s something about our state that is [00:32:30] worthy of pride. We have tremendous opportunities. We are one of the more diverse states in the country. We are one of the best places to live. We are a vibrant community where I think that the conversation about how you tie talent and community and workforce together is … It’s nice to say that but will [00:33:00] we really live and breathe it? We have been for several years now. I think people need to understand that about our state is that this is a … I use to kid about it but it’s still true. In my career, I’ve had a chance to live in a lot of places and I was always happier, literally, when I crossed the state line and came back to Florida. I’m blessed right now to be able to do what I’m doing in the state that I really want to do it in. I think there are a lot of people that believe that about Florida and maybe more people ought to know that about [00:33:30] us.
Chris Cate: You have a favorite Florida place to visit?
Marshall Criser: Generally, I’m gonna tell you it’s the woods. Maybe that’s not how we’re always thought of but I love outdoors. I’ve always loved the beach. I’ve always loved other things but I actually like the woods. I think it’s a place I go to be quiet and I kind of enjoy the experience of sitting just literally up in a tree watching the sun come up. [00:34:00] Seeing Florida crank up for another day.
Chris Cate: Is there a particular state park or somewhere you like to go?
Marshall Criser: They wouldn’t let you climb up in the trees in state parks. I have a little piece of property north of town that sits kind of a grove of oak trees looks over a place called Straw Pond, which is not really a pond and it’s not really straw. I don’t know why they call it the Straw Pond but it’s a quiet place. Sometimes it’s good to have a quiet place.
Chris Cate: Finally, do you have a favorite Florida sports team?
Marshall Criser: [00:34:30] Yeah, the Gators but I can’t hide that though it’s fun. It’s always great to be a Gator but it is also great to root for every single Florida team. Sometimes that does some of the others good or sometimes it does … I’m not sure I jinx others when I root for them but all of our university teams are … Anytime there’s a question, it’s Florida.
Chris Cate: Well, thank you so much for being on the show.
Marshall Criser: Thanks.
Chris Cate: Thanks [00:35:00] for listening to the Fluent In Floridian podcast. If you aren’t subscribed to the podcast yet, I hope you’ll look us up and subscribe to the show on your favorite podcast app like Apple Podcast, Stitcher, or Google Play Music. If you leave a review, that would be great too. Thanks to my team at SalterMitchell PR for making this podcast possible. If you need help telling your Florida story, we’ve got you covered. We offer issues management, crisis communications, social media advocacy, and media relations assistance. We also have our own in-house [00:35:30] creative and research teams. Look us up at saltermitchellpr.com for more information. You can also find more information about the Fluent In Floridian podcast at fluentinfloridian.com. Have a great day.