State Senate's harsh funding cut proposal draws pushback from USF supporters

02/14/12 Janelle Irwin
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The University of South Florida could lose $79 million in funding if a state Senate budget proposal is adopted. Under the plan, USF would also lose control over its Lakeland Polytechnic Institute, which would become the state’s 12th independent university. At an emergency board meeting last night, trustees estimated the overall cost would $130 million.

The Senate’s proposed budget withholds $25 million from USF until it cuts its Polytechnic Institute loose. According to John Ramil, who chairs of the Board of Trustees, that contingency contributes to USF’s loss.

“The separation bill requires USF to allow the current USF Polytechnic students to complete their degree at USF. And one of the things that Mark pointed out is it does that, but then the budget gives us no money for doing that and that’s north of about $20 million or so.”

But USF’s Chief Operating Officer John Long says the school does have a sizable chunk of change, $120 million, filed away in reserves.

“And as any good business would have, we have a cash reserve in case something happens. By statute, we’re required to keep a 5% cash reserve as well our board of trustees requires us to keep another 3%. Which, when you look at our entire budget with our financial aid, of about a billion four, to have $100 million cash reserve is not all that unrealistic.”

Long estimates that the rainy day fund will be in the red to the tune of $50 million within one year if the university is forced to take the Senate’s budget blow. Graham Tobin, vice provost for budget planning, said lost funding would inevitably be passed on to students through tuition hikes.

“Beyond that there’s reduced access and increased demand for particular courses. Inevitably we’re not going to be able to offer the same number of sections and the same number of courses with these types of cuts. This has implications for longer time to degree and lower graduation rates which is one of the things we’ve been trying to build on over recent years and it will severely impact one of our major measures. Of course increased indebtedness to students will be a possibility. If it takes them longer to graduate, they’re postponing moving to the salaried workforce.”

Tobin said the Senate’s budget forces USF to absorb one-fifth of the $400 million in cuts spread among all eleven state universities. State funding to USF would drop more than half to $2400 per student. Compare that to Florida State University whose budget would only be cut by 22% and would still get more than $5,000 in state funding per student.

“That’s a lot of bad news. A lot of bad news.”

But it doesn’t stop there. Tobin also estimates the cut will impact the ability of the University to be competitive in its search for quality educators. Then it’s a downward spiral from there. USF fought its way to 27th in the nation as a research university. Board of Trustees member Stephanie Goforth rallied support to keep the budget from affecting that progress.

“This is not a time for us to be scared. We are Bulls. We are not going to take it. We’re going to stand up. We’re going to let our voices be heard and we are going to tell them how we fell. So, go Bulls!”

And she wasn’t alone. One by one support from community leaders, other trustees and faculty stepped up with plans to mobilize an all out attack in Tallahassee to stop what many are calling a political vendetta against USF. The proposed budget was spearheaded by Senate budget chair JD Alexander. The Lake Wales Republican has been pushing for the Lakeland campus to become an independent university. Richard Heruska, president of the USF Alumni Association said he has more than a quarter of a million people to speak out against Alexander’s proposed budget.

“For those who do not know, the alumni association has three over arching missions. One, of course, is to connect alumni. The second is to strengthen USF. The third is to support students. This specific issue attacks two of those three issues and two of those three missions for the university.”

The only other state university with proposed cuts nearly as deep as USF is the University of Central Florida. But at $55 million in reductions, even they don’t come close. And the reason for singling out the Bulls, trustee Hal Mullis wants to know? USF’s chief operating officers John Long says, so far, there isn’t one.

“Is there any articulated rational for the seemingly disproportionate treatment of USF?”

“We had two conversations with representatives of the Board of Governor’s staff over the weekend and today and the best we can tell is no. It seems to be, in their words, there’s no formula, it’s political. That wasn’t my words.”

USF president Judy Genshaft isn’t being moved by the political agenda. Instead, she says she’s fighting back.

“We can change this. It is not a done deal. We can change this. And that’s important. I mean, this is not the time to go “ooh” and leave and scared. This is the time to be very strong and move forward on behalf of the University of South Florida.”

Senator JD Alexander did not respond to an interview request by deadline. The Senate Budget Committee, led by Alexander will meet tomorrow to discuss the budget proposal. At least 50 USF students are expected to attend.

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