LAKELAND — It’s been years since John David “JD” Alexander spearheaded a polarizing move to turn a branch campus of the University of South Florida into an autonomous, technology-focused 12th public university.
But on Wednesday, four years to the day after Gov. Rick Scott signed Florida Polytechnic University into being, Alexander received a token of appreciation for his doggedness. The Lakeland campus, currently comprised of one futuristic science building, one wellness center and one student dorm, was named the JD Alexander Campus.
“I’m glad I still have a few friends. I wasn’t sure I’d have any friends when we got done,” the Lake Wales Republican told a crowd dressed in Polytechnic purple to see the new signage bearing Alexander’s name at the university’s main entrance.
Alexander, 56, was the state senate’s budget chairman in 2012 when he began lobbying against fierce opposition to wrest USF Polytechnic away from the multi-campus mother ship and create a separate Polk County university.
“It was an amazing journey, and one — I quite frankly grossly underestimated the difficulty involved,” Alexander said.
Yet the university’s current position speaks to why the state needed a STEM-specific institution, he said. For its second official school year, Polytechnic doubled its enrollment to about 1,000 freshmen, transfer and graduate students, and added 20 new faculty members for a total of about 60. The average GPA of incoming students is 3.9, average ACT score is 26 and average SAT score is 1775.
That couldn’t have happened had USF held on to the reigns of the university, as originally planned, Alexander said. In 2012, the USF Lakeland campus only had a handful of science, technology, engineering, and math-related faculty out of about 50 people, he said, and would have required a slow transition into a school that focused solely on STEM education.
“When we look around our state, we desperately need to change our economy and grow our economy. After having to preside over cutting billions of dollars out of our budget it became crystal clear that had to happen,” said Alexander, former CEO of land management company Alico.
“I think it’s better to lay those foundation stones correctly and properly to build the institutions we all hope for, rather than starting it off in a less than ideal way and then getting another general education university.”
Polytechnic’s rise has fallen short of its marks, though. The latest setback is news the school won’t gain accreditation until at least a year later than the December 2016 deadline set by the Legislature.
The university’s new president, Randy Avent, skipped platitudes during the naming ceremony Wednesday to assure attendees that Polytechnic is on the right path and working toward the designation at a rate never attempted before.
“We’re still doing it faster than anyone has ever done it before and I feel confident that we’ll get accreditation next year,” Avent said. “When JD Alexander had a vision for a university that was wholly dedicated to core stem education, that was responsive to the state’s needs, that was small and selective he faced resistance, but he didn’t let that stop him . Now, we’re moving forward with building out that campus and shaping the university.”
Alexander’s advocacy for local institutions of higher learning extends to the Polk State College campus in Lake Wales, named the JD Alexander Center in 2009.
A rolling scholarship fund for high school students planning to attend Polytechnic has also been established in Alexander’s name by his family, which includes cousin and former Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris as well as his grandfather, the late citrus magnate Ben Hill Griffin Jr.
“Simply put, we wouldn’t be here today if it wasn’t for JD Alexander,” said Mark Bostick, chairman of Florida Polytechnic’s Board of Trustees Mark Bostick. “That really says it all.”