TAMPA — In the drama surrounding the creation of Florida Polytechnic University, they were the ones caught in the middle: the 1,000-plus students at what had been a University of South Florida campus in Lakeland that was soon to disappear.
The USF students were promised they would be accommodated, and halfway into a three-year “teach-out” of the Lakeland students, they say they’re making the best of an unfortunate situation.
“I think we really have a handle now on how to finish off our time here with some integrity and dignity,” said Michael Nacrelli, who is in a master’s program in mental health counseling at the Lakeland campus. “At this point, we’re looking at a year that should be calm and really productive.”
It didn’t start out that way, Nacrelli said. And a lot of that can be traced to February 2012, when a powerful Polk County lawmaker made the move to break off the USF campus into an independent public university.
USF Polytechnic, as it was known, was on a track to become Florida’s 12th public university. Members of the state university system’s Board of Governors wanted the school to meet certain accreditation, enrollment and infrastructure benchmarks, and in a few years, the board would wean it from the USF umbrella.
While most students attended class at a joint-use center on the Polk State College campus, construction had started on a signature Poly building designed by renowned architect Santiago Calatrava.
In the 2012 legislative session, powerful state Sen. JD Alexander, a Republican from Lake Wales and head of his chamber’s appropriations committee, muscled through legislation that made the separation immediate.
The bill transferred the state’s $33.5 million allocation from USF Poly to the new school and provided $10 million “for the purpose of allowing students enrolled in the University of South Florida Polytechnic to complete their degrees at the University of South Florida.”
The move jolted USF Poly students.
“I was shocked. It just seemed like a mess, what was going on at this school,” said Kiera McMillan, now a senior in psychology.
“The way it was handled was totally inappropriate,” Nacrelli said. “It was harsh back then. The human element was not a factor in the equation at all.”
Kathleen Moore, associate vice president for USF system initiatives, was put in charge of a three-year teach-out beginning in fall 2012. She faced what she called “a sizable task,” to get 1,006 students across 14 different degree programs to complete school.
The Lakeland campus had 80 faculty members in the fall of 2012 and 70 full-time staffers.
“USF did make a commitment to students that we would teach out all of the program, so all of those 1,006 students would have the opportunity to complete their degree in Lakeland,” she said. “The biggest challenge was to reassure the 1,006 that the university was serious about doing what it promised to do.”
Moore said that after the first year of the teach-out, about half of the USF Poly students either completed their degrees or transferred to programs at the main campus in Tampa. This fall, 484 students registered at Lakeland, and 37 faculty members remained.
Moore said no faculty members were laid off; most had been transferred to Tampa as the Lakeland workload eased.
The full-time support staff head count is down to 26 after layoffs this summer.
The enrollment and faculty levels mean students based in Lakeland are taking more online classes and have to travel to Tampa for some face-to-face courses.
That’s been an issue for McMillan, who favors a classroom college experience.
“I don’t like it,” she said on a recent afternoon in the USF Lakeland library. “It’s like you’re here, but you’re not here.”
She said if she knew what was in store for her after the 2012 split, “I probably wouldn’t have come here.”
Nacrelli said a rough start of the teach-out has given way to a better experience.
“I can say that a lot of my fellow students that have graduated and some that are still here feel the wind was taken out of their sails when this happened,” he said. However, “it has changed dramatically. We have had a real push of help and guidance. Their ears are open in Tampa, and they’re ready to help us.”
Moore said a key to making it work was ensuring that the Lakeland students had the support — academic advising, health and wellness, even funding for clubs — that was there beforehand. A student council has replaced formal student government, but the council still controls the activities and services fees paid by students there.
USF Provost and Executive Vice President Ralph Wilcox said students “that aren’t quite out the door” when the three-year teach-out ends will still be able to complete their degrees either online or by traveling to the Tampa campus.
Moore acknowledged that the Lakeland students may have missed out on the typical college experience of a highly social campus setting with more students and larger classes, but she insists the quality of education has been maintained.
“We are succeeding,” she said. “In some ways, it’s rather sad to be running a teach-out. But we try to focus on what the students need, what is best for them and how we can best deliver that to them. All of the staff and all of the faculty at Lakeland have been truly dedicated to that.”