University heads ask businesses to offer insight, internships
By Jacquelyn Weiner
South Florida — with its palm-tree-filled, sunny image — has no problem attracting students to its higher education institutions, four area university presidents agreed Friday at a panel discussion hosted by the Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce.
What still needs work, the presidents said, is the area's ability to keep them here after graduation.
It is "incumbent upon the business community that jobs are available," said Sandra T. Thompson, interim president of Florida Memorial University.
"A large number of [out-of-state] students want to stay in Florida," she said, but they can only do so if there are quality jobs.
President Thompson was joined by Donna E. Shalala, president of the University of Miami; Franklyn M. Casale, president of St. Thomas University; and George L. Hanbury II, president of Nova Southeastern University, in discussing a "Globally Competitive Workforce in the 21st Century."
About 100 attended, said Lorraine Reigosa, chamber spokesperson.
Discussion among the presidents centered on how the universities are working to prepare graduates for the workforce and what business can do to help.
A significant concern the schools are working to remedy, the presidents agreed, is how unprepared many graduates are for the working world.
"When you've done nothing but study for 12 years… and then you're unleashed," Dr. Hanbury of Nova Southeastern said, "it's a scary thing."
Nova is working to educate students with more than just book smarts, he said, and plans to start an institute that teaches students sales skills.
The school has also instituted more critical-thinking training at its law school, he said.
St. Thomas has heard similar feedback about law students, Msgr. Casale said: that graduates know their cases but are novices at actual practice.
"We need all our students to be practice ready," he said.
That requires help from the business community by way of internships and work experience, said the University of Miami's President Shalala.
"A lot of that clinical experience is in those opportunities," she said.
But with the university's law students, for example, Dr. Shalala said, "it's almost impossible to get an internship in this town."
The state K-12 school system also needs reform, the presidents said, in instilling critical thinking skills and preparing students for college and the working world.
"They're novices when they come to us at just doing the business of everyday life," Msgr. Casale said. "Those things need to be pushed back into the K-12."
This isn't happening in part because of schools' emphasis on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test (FCAT), President Shalala said.
"The FCAT is hurting our ability to transform these schools," she said.
"When you have conversations with superintendents in this state, they are completely focused on the FCAT," she said. And they're "scared to death" of changing that.
Also on the universities' radar for the future: preparing students for an increasingly global workforce.
"Education has to be done in the global economy," Dr. Hanbury said, which largely involves diversity.
All four presidents listed diversity as a key aim at their universities.
Dr. Shalala said she feel some people are "scared" of the school's diversity, but that it is an essential part of preparing students for their futures.
Still, "The bigger challenge for higher education is predicting the future," she said.
To graduate skilled professionals with applicable experience, the presidents emphasized, there needs to be more communication between the schools and the business world.
"We need you to tell us what the markets are," Msgr. Casale said, "and more explicitly than you're doing right now."