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In major shift, House bill would turn three USF universities into one

Separate accreditation has long been a point of pride and a stamp of independence for the St. Petersburg and Sarasota-Manatee branches of the University of South Florida.

Graduates of those schools frame diplomas bearing the name of their own universities, which all fall under the umbrella of the Tampa-based USF System.

But under proposed changes to a bill moving through the Florida House of Representatives, the USF System as it stands today could be no more.

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Instead, USF could have to phase out its separate accreditation at St. Petersburg and Sarasota-Manatee, melding the entire system into one unit.

"It’s an opportunity for St. Petersburg and Sarasota-Manatee to have a preeminent university in their community," said Rep. Chris Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor, who is behind the push. "I think, naturally, it will have them rising together as opposed to being separate limbs."

The provision is tucked away in a proposed committee substitute to the House’s version of a massive higher education package that passed unanimously in the Senate last week. Among other changes, the Senate bill would boost Bright Futures merit scholarships and tweak the way the state rewards university performance.

The House version mostly follows suit.

But a proposed version, to be discussed Wednesday morning in the House’s Post-Secondary Education Committee, adds the USF provision and gives the school a hard deadline of January 2019 to come up with a consolidation plan.

The move would return USF to an earlier arrangement, when USFSP and USFSM served as satellite campuses of the larger university. In the late 1990s, Florida lawmakers started a process to formally separate USFSP from the main campus after complaints that it wasn’t reaching its potential under the control of administrators in Tampa. When that effort failed, a movement to separately accredit USFSP gained steam, and was formally approved in 2006.

The House bill remains in the early stages, and as such, many questions remain. It’s not clear what such a consolidation plan would look like, or how it would truly affect the universities, which already share resources. Details big and small — like those diplomas — would have to be addressed as USF leaders negotiate the potential transition.

But Sen. Bill Galvano, the sponsor of the Senate version, indicated in an interview Tuesday that his chamber is on board with the idea.

"I think it’s something we’re going to look at very seriously," he said. "It’s definitely on the table. I think, ultimately, it’s a positive impact. It will create efficiencies within the USF system."

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The measure drew early flak from a respected voice at the St. Petersburg school.

"I would say it’s disrespectful that the legislators did it this way," said longtime USFSP professor Ray Arsenault, who has witnessed the school’s many pushes for autonomy over the years. "There’s a level of condescension and interference there. If they’re not careful, they’re really going to damage the university system."

Arsenault said that, after the shocking ouster of Sophia Wisniewska, the campus’ well-liked leader following Hurricane Irma, the waterfront campus was beginning to regain its sea legs. Now he said faculty had another reason to doubt the system’s stability.

"They’re just playing with our lives, playing with the future of our campus," he said. "Getting rid of our separate accreditation will hurt our separate identity."

USF spokeswoman Lara Wade said in a statement: "The values of the USF System include unity, loyalty and the recognition that we are stronger when we work together. We intend to use those principles to help guide us through this process."

Wade said that, should the bill become law, the university’s No. 1 priority would be to minimize the impact on students, faculty and staff. She said university leaders from all three institutions would work with trustees, state leaders, elected officials and community leaders to come up with a plan.

"Regardless of the outcome, we intend for each USF System campus to continue achieving higher levels of student success and scholarly activity, and as a result we will provide all students with the world-class education they came here to earn," Wade said.

She said the school will stay focused on serving the entire Tampa Bay region.

Currently, under individual accreditation, USFSP and USFSM function separately from USF Tampa in terms of administration and budget. State funds are appropriated in separate line items. They both have their own campus boards and leaders, who report to USF System President Judy Genshaft. They measure their own metrics, such as graduation and retention rates.

The proposed changes to House Bill 423, which is sponsored by Rep. Ray Rodrigues, R-Fort Myers, would bring an end to separate Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges accreditation at those two institutions by July 2020. That would bring all of USF’s complex parts under a single, unified accreditation.

Then, USF would report all metrics to the state as one university, rather than splintering graduation rates and other data across institutions. This would play a critical role in a state university system that funds schools based on performance in key areas, such as retention.

That’s because, for now, "the system is designed for us to fail," said Arsenault, the St. Petersburg professor.

When a USF St. Petersburg student transfers to Tampa, often for a major that the smaller institution doesn’t offer, the move hurts USFSP retention statistics. Proponents of the Pinellas campus have wondered whether, as Tampa rises higher on the national level, its success could act as a disincentive to share resources with its siblings. Under the proposed arrangement, all campuses would be considered preeminent.

In an interview Tuesday, Sprowls recalled a painful split at USF in 2012, when a lawmaker’s charge to break off its Lakeland campus succeeded in birthing Florida Polytechnic. He indicated that the move toward unity would add a level of security, quelling lingering concerns.

"I think it’s an opportunity for all of Tampa Bay to get behind a strong university," Sprowls said.

A spokesman at USFSP deferred comment to Tampa.

Contact Claire McNeill at [email protected] or (727) 893-8321.

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Education

In major shift, House bill would turn three USF universities into one