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Thursday, Aug 16, 2018
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Editorial: More talk, answers needed on future of USF St. Petersburg

The Florida Legislature’s abrupt move to strip the University of South Florida St. Petersburg of its hard-earned separate accreditation and transform it back into a satellite of the major research university lacks detail and an appreciation for history. It also lacks the consensus-building necessary to ensure such a dramatic change would benefit USFSP and be widely supported. Lawmakers should slow down and engage the entire community in a broader discussion that provides more detail about the potential benefits and addresses legitimate concerns about unintended consequences.

Without warning, legislation popped up just before a three-day holiday weekend that directs USF to create a plan over the next year to phase out the separate accreditation of USFSP and the Sarasota-Manatee campus. Rep. Chris Sprowls, R-Clearwater, pursued the change without consulting USF president Judy Genshaft, St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman or virtually anyone else with a vested interest in the future of the St. Petersburg campus. With the future House speaker’s backing, it’s no wonder that provision and the broader legislation, HB 423, zipped through its first committee Wednesday and likely will sail through the House.

It’s also no surprise the negative backlash in St. Petersburg was swift. When Kriseman and former Mayor Rick Baker are on the same side after the bitter election battle that Kriseman narrowly won, there’s clearly widespread concern. The surprise legislation also reopens old wounds about USF’s onetime domination of the St. Petersburg campus and suspicions about Genshaft’s involvement that could have been avoided. The botched rollout will make it harder to have a thoughtful discussion about USFSP’s future and to portray a reunified university as something besides a power grab.

The reality is that a fully unified USF is not the worst idea the Florida Legislature has ever had about higher education. Sprowls considers the separate accreditation for USFSP a worthwhile experiment, and there is no apparent reason to question his motives for change. He makes a provocative argument that times are different and that the Legislature will continue to steer more money toward universities based on performance standards. USF is designated as an emerging pre-eminent institution and poised to join the top tier of pre-eminent universities that receive millions in additional funding. While USFSP’s metrics are not considered in calculating USF’s standing, the St. Petersburg campus also doesn’t stand to receive any benefits associated with USF achieving the top status.

In Sprowls’ vision, a united university would motivate USF to direct more resources and programs to the St. Petersburg campus because the university’s systemwide performance would factor into the performance funding. He sees the potential for engineering programs and more health care offerings. The awkwardness of the respected College of Marine Science reporting to Tampa while based in St. Petersburg would disappear. And there could be one set of admissions standards and one USF diploma for the entire university.

Yet history has to be taken into account in any push for transformational change. The St. Petersburg campus drifted for years from willful neglect from Tampa, with its potential unrealized. It wasn’t until the late 1990s that it was allowed to offer a wider array of courses for freshmen and sophomores, and even then a misguided legislative effort in 2000 to make it an independent university gained considerable traction before it collapsed. Genshaft responded commendably to that challenge by giving USFSP autonomy over issues such as student admissions, course offerings, hiring and tenure. That set the stage for the campus winning its separate academic accreditation in 2006, and despite occasional friction between USF and USFSP the arrangement has been a success.

The compact St. Petersburg campus is a public jewel that has been dramatically improved and expanded. Student enrollment and performance are up from years ago. One major residence hall is open, demand for rooms exceeds capacity and another 550-bed residence hall is nearing final approval this spring. The Kate Tiedemann College of Business, named after a donor who contributed $10 million for education and research, is in a gleaming new building that opened just a year ago. USFSP, with an enrollment approaching 5,000 students, has transformed itself from a commuter school by creating its own identity and brand within the USF system.

That progress should not be put at risk, and this proposed change comes at a moment when USFSP is particularly vulnerable to political meddling. Its chancellor was forced to resign last fall, a search committee for a successor has not been named and other key administrators have left voluntarily. Former Sen. Jack Latvala, the Clearwater Republican who was a strong protector, has resigned amid allegations of sexual harassment. And Kriseman is a partisan Democratic mayor with few friends among the Republicans who control the Legislature.

What would be the governance structure under a unified USF? How will the St. Petersburg campus be guaranteed its fair share of the performance money, the attention and the promising future Sprowls envisions — particularly after he is term-limited out of the Legislature in 2022? What would be the impact on enrollment at USFSP and access for minority students to a local university campus if the admission criteria were the same systemwide? How would the campus continue to grow as an economic driver and an attractor for St. Petersburg if all of the key decisions were made in Tampa?

These are questions that deserve serious public discussion before the Legislature blows up a workable arrangement based on vague assurances that a USF unified system would be better for the St. Petersburg campus. Genshaft needs to come out of hiding today and address these issues. If she and USF’s Board of Trustees support this change, they need to explain why.

A unified USF may have merit. But decades of effort for some measure of self-determination for the University of South Florida St. Petersburg should not be erased in weeks in Tallahassee without a more complete picture of what the future would hold for a campus that has made tremendous strides.

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