USF president, students glad for restored funding but still want fewer cuts

02/24/12 Janelle Irwin
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Some of the sting was taken away from the cuts proposed for the University of South Florida. That’s because the state Senate voted yesterday to more evenly spread 400 million dollars in budget cuts across all Florida public universities. They also approved plans to immediately make the USF Polytechnic campus in Lakeland the state’s 12th independent university. USF students and the university president reacted to the news last night on the Tampa campus.

An independent polytechnic university has been what Senate Budget Committee chair, JD Alexander, has called for all along. But now instead of withholding $25 million until it happens, the state, under the Senate plan, will give USF $10 million to make it happen. At a press conference, USF President Judy Genshaft said the school needs more than that, but this is a start.

“While that doesn’t cover all of the faculty and staff, the proviso does say that if there are more faculty or staff that need to come over to the USF Polytechnic or remain in the USF Polytechnic, that we could work out an arrangement; a memorandum of understanding with the Polytechnic University and that they would pay from their budget.”

With the Polytechnic stipend, under the Senate’s budget, USF faces a net loss of $35 million in state funding. But that’s down from the original proposal of $78 million and represents a more even distribution of cuts across all 11 state universities. The House already passed a budget with fewer higher education cuts, so the two branches need to reconcile. Then the budget will have to be approved by Governor Rick Scott following the close of the legislative session on March 9th. Genshaft said regardless of how much ends up being cut, she hopes it will be a one time deal.

“For one year we might be able to weather it, but it would be tight and it would mean that we would have to be very, very careful – won’t be as many classes taught. But at least we could weather it for one year, but not longer than that because we’d be using up all of our reserves.”

USF students and faculty and elected officials from the Tampa Bay area have fervently spoken out against the proposed cuts. Luis Silva is the president of USF’s College Democrats. He and other members of that group hand delivered hundreds of petitions to legislators and spoke with Sen. JD Alexander’s aide. During a rally organized by students opposed to the cuts, Silva said that kind of diligence from opponents was a big part of why so much funding was restored.

“We also expressed our disgust not only with the budget, but we felt that it was kind of premature for USF Lakeland, or USF Polytechnic to split from the USF system. So, we let that be known, not only to JD, but a lot of the Senators – everybody in the region actually.”

And even though the final Senate vote is less painful for USF than it could have been, students still want legislators to do better. Christina Hughes is a USF student running for student body president and was one of the fifty students at the rally. She said lawmakers shouldn’t be cutting anything at all.

“Even though we won this little challenge, we’ve got to do so much more. It doesn’t stop here. We can’t just go to Tallahassee when we need things done for us. We’ve got to be there all the time. They’ve got to know who USF is. We’ve got to guarantee that next year they won’t throw 58% at us.”

University president Genshaft said some cuts are inevitable, but she remains optimistic.

“We are still looking forward to an additional positive outcome from the conference when the House and the Senate meet together. I am hopeful that the cuts will go down.”

But many students thought elected officials in Florida could find other solutions to budget shortfalls. Chris Cano who is also running for student body president told people at the rally they shouldn’t vote for any legislator who would cut funding to education.

“They’re trying to affect the American dream and yet they say ‘oh, well we’re hurting, it’s hard times and we have to cut the budget’. But yet they can give out tax breaks and subsidies to multi-million dollar corporations that are moving jobs overseas instead of providing the education for each and every one of us. To me that’s unacceptable.”

And former student body president, Cesar Hernandez, pressed students to cast their ballots in November. He said candidates will continue to ignore students until voter turnout increases.

“If I’m running for some type of office, do you think I’m going to come spend money here? You think I’m going to come speak to you? You think I care about what you’re going to have to say to me? No. I’m going to go to where the pocket books are at.”

USF’s current student government president pushed voting too. Matt Diaz pointed to a table where students could register if they weren’t already.

“Did it make you angry that these budget cuts are coming down like this? And what are we going to do? Are we going to vote in November? We should get one of you guys into office. Why don’t we vote Cesar into office? Why don’t we vote any of these individuals – any of you into office? I’d be more than happy to campaign for you because you will stand up for the students.”

Organizers of the rally gathered petition signatures. Some people even showed up with stacks they had collected during the week. The goal is to reach 1500 signatures to deliver to lawmakers in Tallahassee next week.

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