USF-Poly Gets to be Independent

With a larger-than-normal audience looking on, the Florida State University System’s Board of Governors approved a compromise plan that would allow USF-Polytechnic to split into an independent university.  However, the separation is likely to take at least three years and could take as many as 10.

In a debate that lasted more than four hours, interested parties and the Board of Governors (BOG) debated the pros and cons of adding a 12th Florida university that focuses on “STEM” areas of science, technology, engineering, and math.

Ultimately, the BOG agreed to grant independence to USF-Poly after it meets a series of eight criteria – including accreditation and campus development – over the next few years.

One board member told 10 News it was the perfect compromise: both sides left unhappy.

USF President Dr. Judy Genshaft had opened the discussion by saying that USF faculty, alumni, and students have expressed fierce opposition to the separation of the Lakeland campus.  By leveraging USF’s bond rating and reputation, she said USF-Poly receives great savings that it could never enjoy alone.

She also contended that it is in the best academic interests of the people of Central Florida to remain under USF’s umbrella.

“I cannot tell you how many different constituencies and residents of Polk Co. have said to me, ‘We need USF. Please stay in our community,’ ” Genshaft said.

Genshaft also acknowledged the roughly two dozen USF students who made the trip from Tampa to oppose separation as well as several members of the USF Board of Trustees, who unanimously opposed polytechnic independence.

USF-Poly Chancellor Dr. Marshall Goodman countered that his plan for independence has received praise from world-renowned education leaders and it had plenty of resources to break away from USF’s control.

“We have sufficient funding to start and grow this university,” Goodman said, citing USF-Poly’s $32.9 million in FY2010-11 revenues.

Goodman made no mention of Monday’s 10 News reports that he spent $10,000 of school funds on live-sized Star Wars statues.  USF-Poly also just announced a $500,000 marketing campaign launched last month and Goodman is looking to spend an additional $500,000 on a promotional video for the yet-to-be-built campus.

Sitting nearby was State Sen. J.D. Alexander, R-Lake Wales, who has made independence for the Lakeland campus his top priority in his final year as Senate Budget Chairman.  Alexander and Goodman have been two of the few big-name supporters of independence, countering that students’, professors’, and faculty’s concerns are misguided.

Alexander, who also brought along Senate President-Designate Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, for extra muscle, spoke to the board after Goodman finished.  Alexander said he has had to to earmark funds specifically for USF-Poly because USF administrators haven’t allocated enough funds for the campus to thrive.

Last year, Alexander wielded his considerable power in Tallahassee to preserve a $35 million earmark for USF-Poly when almost every other earmark was vetoed by Gov. Rick Scott.

“There is no member of the Florida Legislature in the last decade,” Gaetz told the board, “who has had his name on more appropriations for higher education – for all institutions – than J.D. Alexander.

“The most popular major (in Florida universities) in the last reporting period was psychology,” Gaetz said, stressing the importance of STEM degrees. “Only 35% of psychology majors…are employed full-time…in any field!”

State senators Paula Dockery, R-Lakeland, and Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, weren’t present Wednesday, but both criticized Alexander’s motives. Dockery sent a letter to the Board of Governors Wednesday morning after Fasano sent one to Chancellor Frank Brogan Tuesday pleading for the board to reject the independence request.

Dockery’s plea focused more on practicality of the polytechnic staying under USF’s umbrella instead of splitting off into Florida’s 12th university.

“Under the current scenario,” Dockery wrote of the longstanding arrangement with USF, “there is little to no risk of failure.”

Dockery said splitting off would jeopardize funding, accreditation, and any benefit students currently receive from their association with a well-established university.

“With push for independence from a small, but well organized group there is great fear that this action is extraordinarily premature,” she continued in her letter to the Board of Governors.

“I have heard from many of you that politics has certainly entered into the pace and tone of this issue and that is extremely disheartening.

“Accurate financial data and a carefully thought out vision for Florida’s higher education system should be driving this process. I am of the opinion the rush for independence NOW is being done for all the wrong reasons.”

Fasano’s letter contended there has been a lack of vetting of the independence plan.

“I do not believe there has been adequate time for the fiscal issue or many other concerns to be addressed,” Fasano wrote.  “Despite the push by a few individuals to create a separate university, it is my opinion this is being done for all the wrong reasons. Perhaps the time will come when Florida has the money and student base to make it work.  However, that time is not now.”

Michael Long, the chairman of the Florida Student Association, criticized Alexander for what others have called “checkbook blackmail.”  He said Alexander told him privately that he would “quit fighting for higher education if he didn’t get his way on this issue.”

A faculty representative at USF-Poly told the board that recent surveys from faculty and students indicated opposition to the proposal and plummeting morale.  80% of students opposed a split from USF, 50% said they would transfer to another USF campus if USF-Poly went independent, and 97% – all but two students – said they were never consulted on independence plans.

Board of Governors member John Temple tried to kill the debate at the very start of the meeting, contending that it is the wrong time to change paths for the budding campus in Lakeland, but only two other governors of the 16 voting supported his motion.

Temple later called USF-Poly’s business plan a “piece of crap”  and Chancellor Goodman “incompetent” while making it clear he would not support any motion for independence.

Below are the criteria for USF-Poly independence, as approved 13-3 by the Board of Governors:

  1. Achieve separate accreditation pursuant to s. 1004.345, F.S.  During the period that Polytechnic is seeking separate accreditation from SACS, Polytechnic shall initiate planning activities for the development of the new programs identified in Phase I of the Business Plan.
  2. After separate accreditation is achieved, Polytechnic shall implement the programs identified in Phase I of the Business Plan upon approval of the programs by SACS.   Highest priority for program development and implementation shall be focused on programs in STEM fields, and appropriate discipline-specific accreditation shall be sought.
  3. Polytechnic must attain a minimum FTE of 1,244 as calculated in the Business Plan, with a minimum 50% of that FTE in STEM and 20% in STEM-related programs.
  4. The following facilities and infrastructure shall be in place:  the Science and Technology Building, Phase I of the Wellness Center, the modular resident hall (70 beds), and the residence hall (120 beds).
  5. Polytechnic shall have a full complement of the following services or functions, provided either directly or where feasible through a shared services model: financial aid, admissions, student support, information technology, and finance and accounting with an internal audit function.
  6. Students enrolled at USF Polytechnic shall be given an option to graduate with a diploma from USF, subject to university criteria.
  7. During the transition period to independent status, the Board of Governors shall monitor the development of the campus and its operations, working in collaboration with the appropriate boards, and that shall take place on a semi-annual basis.
  8. The Board shall be consulted of any significant change to the Business Plan prior to any action being taken on such change.
  9. Once the foregoing criteria have been met, Polytechnic shall notify the Board and the Board shall conduct a final review to confirm the criteria have been satisfied.