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Friday, Sep 30, 2016

Tampa Tribune editorial: USF merits Scott's support

Gov. Rick Scott doesn't mind playing favorites when it comes to the state universities. His budget includes an extra $15 million for the University of Florida to help it become one of the nation's top colleges. He plans to give UF an extra $15 million for five years. The money will be used to hire new faculty. The promise of the special funding helped persuade UF President Bernie Machen to change his mind about his announced retirement. Scott's actions may endear him to Gators, but is he going to make such promises when other university presidents threaten to quit? More importantly, where is his commitment to other key state universities?
Last year, when the University of South Florida, a vital economic engine, was under attack by former Polk Sen. JD Alexander, Scott lifted not a finger on USF's behalf. Indeed, he signed the bill transforming USF's Polytechnic branch campus in Lakeland into an independent university solely to appease Alexander. It was a scandalous abuse of limited higher education tax dollars. There was absolutely no justification for creating a new university — other than a powerful politician wanted it. Now Florida Polytechnic — an unaccredited school without a single student — will be looking for millions from the state. And we can't forget how Machen stuck his nose in the affair, coming to Alexander's assistance and saying he could oversee Polytechnic's move to independence if necessary. Despite Machen's questionable actions, UF, without question, deserves strong state support. It is the oldest and most prestigious state university and generates the most research dollars — $740 million in 2010-11. It performs well on graduation rates and other benchmarks, though it is unfair to compare such numbers to an urban commuter university such as USF, where many students work full time and take longer to graduate. UF was the preeminent state university long before Machen arrived nine years ago, and it faces no greater challenges than our other major research universities, which also are essential to the state's prosperity. So far, most of the fuss about Scott's partiality to UF is coming from boosters at Florida State University, its traditional rival. But USF has equal cause to be upset. With 47,000 students, it has a larger student body than FSU, and it is second only to UF in research dollars. In 2010-11, USF generated $401 million in research dollars. FSU spent $230 million. USF's research funds increased 19 percent over four years, more than the other major universities. Like UF and FSU, USF is striving to become an elite university and has made remarkable progress — consider the accomplishments of its medical school. And unlike UF or FSU, in recent years Tampa's university has had to continually fight being sabotaged in Tallahassee. We hope all of Florida's major research universities fare well in the Legislature this year. But in our view, if any school deserves a special funding boost this year, it's USF.