tbo: Tampa Bay Online.
Monday, Jul 24, 2017

Ambushing USF

Prior to the session, when questioned whether he would allow Polk Sen. JD Alexander to punish the University of South Florida for resisting Alexander's plan to make USF Polytechnic in Lakeland a separate university, Senate President Mike Haridopolos was reassuring. Alexander, Haridopolos stressed, would never abuse his position as chair of the budget committee. The promise rang hollow then, and it now has been revealed as either wishful thinking or outright fabrication. Alexander is mounting a furious attack on USF, an institution that has a $3.7 billion economic impact on Central Florida. Last week, the Senate unveiled a plan to immediately make Polytechnic a separate university, severing all ties to USF, which developed the school as a branch campus.
Now the Senate budget proposes a crippling 58 percent cut to the USF budget. It would receive only $74.5 million, compared to the $178 million the previous year. Cuts, obviously, are necessary during these tough times, but no other university would be slashed so drastically. The University of Central Florida, for instance, would be cut about 35 percent. The University of Florida, 25.8 percent. Florida State University, 22.3 percent. Moreover, if Polytechnic becomes another university, USF would be stuck paying another $18 million, since it would be mandated to fund all the costs of existing Polytechnic students, faculty and staff. The proposed "Polytechnic University" would receive more than $32 million for startup costs but have no obligation to any students. It's an outrageous perversion of the higher education system, but no surprise given the mess Haridopolos and Alexander have made of the Senate, a governing body once known for carefully considering the long-term consequences of its actions. Facts and thoughtful debate now can get you in trouble. Just ask Sen. Mike Fasano of Pasco County, who recently was removed as a committee chair for questioning a dubious plan to privatize prisons. A few select leaders call the shots. Decisions are made behind the scenes. Legislative procedures are ignored, and lawmakers are expected to do as they are told or pay the price. The other day Sen. Evelyn Lynn of Ormond Beach was all but incoherent when trying to explain legislation making Polytechnic a separate university. What she could not say was this is Alexander's pet project, so no explanation is necessary, even if the proposal makes no academic or financial sense. After a brief discussion, the bill was passed by the higher education appropriation committee Lynn chairs. It was a disgraceful exhibition. Polytechnic has scarcely 1,000 students, no academic accomplishments and is accredited only because of its connection to USF. Neither students nor the faculty want independence. There has been no study on the costs or benefits of separation. Lawmakers did not seem to care that, as the Tribune's Lindsay Peterson reports, splitting Polytechnic from USF would cost the Lakeland campus its accreditation. Alexander insists it could receive provisional accreditation. But there is no such thing, according to Belle Whellan, president of the Southern Association of Colleges Commission on Colleges, the accrediting organization. Whellan told Peterson, "The best bet is to leave them where they are so they can continue to enjoy the status of USF's accreditation." Of course, what's best for students, faculty or taxpayers has never been a concern in Alexander's drive to run Polytechnic as a personal fiefdom. Last fall the Board of Governors approved eventual independence, after Alexander and Sen. Don Gaetz of the Panhandle, scheduled to become the next Senate president, all but threatened the board. The governors may have been intimidated, but they did establish enrollment, academic and other benchmarks that must be reached to ensure that Polytechnic would be ready to stand alone. Achieving those goals will likely take four or five years. But this did not satisfy Alexander, who quickly began scheming to slice Polytechnic from USF. He was upset President Judy Genshaft had the courage to point out the academic and financial hurdles of establishing a new university at this time. Alexander approached University of Florida President Bernie Machen, who arrogantly stuck his nose in the matter and said he could oversee Polytechnic's move to independence. So it came as no surprise that the Senate bill, while making Polytechnic immediately independent, also would make UF its adviser. USF's involvement would end. Alexander says he doesn't trust USF to oversee Polytechnic's separation, but the facts don't support his skepticism. Genshaft is already working to build a solid foundation for the school's evolution. She rightly fired free-spending, big-talking Chancellor Marshall Goodman — who once spent $10,000 for life-size "Star Wars" figures — and replaced him on an interim basis with David Touchton, a conscientious Lakeland CPA. The new chancellor has found nearly $2 million in savings for the school and cut five administrators from the top-heavy staff. Goodman budgeted $500,000 on a promotion video; Touchton is getting it done for $25,000. Lawmakers committed to efficiency would applaud such results and want USF to continue its oversight. But putting Polytechnic on a sound academic and financial footing obviously is not the priority in a Senate that allows one vindictive lawmaker to so pollute the political process.
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