USF's Genshaft talks to Polk political club about Polytechnic split

03/12/12 Janelle Irwin
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Governor Rick Scott now holds the power turn USF’s Polytechnic campus in Lakeland into the state’s 12th independent public university. At a well-attended Polk County Tiger Bay meeting this afternoon, state Senator JD Alexander defended the measure.

The state’s Board of Governors that oversees Florida’s public university system had recommended that USF Polytechnic first meet a series of nine benchmarks before becoming independent. But a bill passed in both the House and Senate pushed by Alexander, would make that happen as soon as July if signed by Governor Rick Scott. Alexander said the split is needed to ensure Florida has a competitive science and technology program; one that would fall more inline with universities like Georgia Tech and MIT.

“We’re still going to accomplish all the benchmarks put forward, but we’ll do that like we did with Florida Gulfcoast University with a board of trustees that will make decisions that are in the best interest of the Florida Polytech, not have another board with conflicts and other concerns making decisions for this institution. At the end of the day, if we’re going to do this we want to do it well and we want to do it where we’ll be a fantastic, nationally competitive institution as soon as it possibly can.”

But critics have argued the state can’t afford funding for a new university. Especially when they are cutting $400 million from the 11 existing institutions. Alexander maintains that funding can and will be secured.

“I believe that we can afford it; we have to afford it if we want to broaden our economy and help our region do well and I think he will sign the bill.”

Another concern is that gaining accreditation for a new start-up institution would be more difficult than getting it for one that was part of an existing university. USF president Judy Genshaft compared the process to the newly accredited Ave Maria college in Fort Myers.

“There are two different models that we are looking at. One is to start from scratch and that’s a very legitimate model, but it takes – as president Wheelan had said – anywhere from three to six years. The other model is to be accredited under the umbrella of the University of South Florida and then move off to its own accreditation and that would take more of about a year to a year and a half. So, those are the two timelines. Both are very legitimate models. One just takes longer than the other.”

Senator JD Alexander said he’s pushed for the immediate split despite the longer accreditation timeline because USF wasn’t doing enough to further the university’s stature.

“It became clear that the internal conflicts over program offerings just didn’t allow polytech to become the great institution we need it to be. When deans in Tampa take programs that are not offered at USF away from polytech and ship them away to Tampa over and over again, it becomes very clear that the innate differences in the conflicts of program offerings just wouldn’t ever allow USF to create this institution.

But Tiger Bay members questioned whether there would be a negative impact to either current or new polytechnic students. Genshaft said there are drawbacks to a public university that isn’t accredited by the Southern Accreditation Council that oversees the process. She said a school must meet a series of audits to ensure that a school has sound curriculum and several other criteria.

“Is this set in stone enough that we can give our stamp of approval for it? And if we cannot, then the consequences are there’s no financial aid – no federal financial aid for students – nor can there be any grants that can be written and funded through the federal agencies like National Science Foundation or National Institutes of Health.”

Members of a USF Polytechnic student group called the Poly 5 also attended the meeting. Michael Nacrelli, a senior at the Lakeland university, said he wanted to see if there was any new information about the split. He called the compromise to give $10 million a year to USF to completely transition current USF Poly students the lesser of two evils. But Nacrelli is still concerned that this move will set a dangerous precedent.

“At any time, the legislator could displace the students, the faculty and the staff in order to create something that they see as a visionary endeavor and to me that puts all satellite campuses at risk because if they are out on their autonomous selves they become targets to predatory politicians and business people who look to privatize nearly everything and I think that we are slipping down the slippery slope.”

Budget cuts to the University of South Florida’s main Tampa campus were originally proposed to include a slash to more than half of USF Tampa’s budget. But after a massive public outcry and grassroots effort by students and advocates, many of the cuts were restored.

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