Former Florida education leader weighs in on a USF Poly split
Coming up Thursday, the Florida Board of Governors will discuss the potential split of the University of South Florida Polytechnic campus in Lakeland from the USF system. For perspective on the issue, we spoke to Charlie Reed, the chancellor of the California state university system who was chancellor of Florida’s university system until 1998. Reed was front and center when Florida’s 10th university, Florida Gulf Coast, was built back in 1997, which took six years and tens of millions of dollars.
From your experience, what would it take to create a new, polytechnic university in Florida?
A lot of money. You know, polytechnics are the most expensive colleges and universities because of their science, technology, math-based laboratories. They are not inexpensive to create. And, you know, Florida doesn’t have any money it appears to me. There’s 11 universities there, and now they’re going to have to divide everything by 12? That doesn’t make any sense to me at all. This is the gift in Lakeland that will keep on taking. That’s the way it’s going to be. I feel for the other 11 institutions that are all going to have to contribute part of their resources. They (Florida’s leaders) can’t fund what they have, and then they’re going to add the most expensive set of programs that they can find?
Ensuring access to higher education is a main charge of Florida’s educational leaders. Couldn’t a new university help with that?
From an access standpoint, take two steps back and think about the minimum qualifications that it takes to be a successful student in a polytechnic. Their standards are higher because of the emphasis on math and science. If you get Florida’s state testing records, I’m going to bet you don’t find that so many students score that high in math and science that the other institutions can’t already take care of them in the capacities they have in their engineering and science programs.
Couldn’t a new polytechnic institute in Florida help attract more students into those fields, though?
The last time I went around Lakeland, it was not this urban area. So are students from all over Florida going to go to Lakeland? Do they have the infrastructure built, or to be built, for students to come from Miami and Tampa and West Palm Beach and Jacksonville? That’s just nuts.
If they build it, perhaps the students will come?
Well you know, hope is in this hand and money in the other hand.
How was the Florida Gulf Coast experience different?
Most of Florida’s public universities were put in place a very similar way as the Lakeland idea -- with just political muscle. On the other hand, Florida Gulf Coast was one of the very few universities in Florida that was ever located by the Board of Regents (a state university system governing board prior to the Board of Governors) based upon need of access. The southwest part of Florida had the lowest going-to-college rate in the state. There was plenty of competition to build a new university in northern Palm Beach County, but the board really made the decision that they needed to serve the needs of the students and the people of Florida. That’s how Florida Gulf Coast got located where it did. Now, you know I’ve been around way too long to go all the way back to the '70s, but then most of the universities started because it was either the president of the Senate or the chairman of education or chairman of the budget committee who muscled them into place. That’s what I call “political intrusion.” Florida is very good at that. They’re among the leaders in the country in terms of political intrusion.
If you could offer advice to those considering USF Polytechnic’s independence, what would you say?
What are the needs to provide access to the Lakeland area that Florida Southern College is not currently meeting? What are the needs for the business community that the University of South Florida, the University of Florida, Florida State, Florida A&M, Central Florida are not meeting? You know, how far is it from Lakeland to the University of Central Florida? That’s got a great science program, and it’s just not that far. And you know, they have infrastructure. They have outstanding faculty members already embedded in those programs. This is a chamber-of-commerce-make-everybody-happy-in-the-neighborhood school.
Some proponents of an independent polytechnic university here point to the success of California’s system in producing such strong STEM-based (science, technology, engineering and math) industries. Couldn’t Florida also reap some of that success?
You know, California has about 37 million people. We have two polytechnics. And you know, they are, I guess, 100 years old. The size of the economy in California is about the seventh in the world. Let me put it another way: I don’t see the Silicon Valley being built around Lakeland. You know, there’s a lot of phosphate pits, but no Silicon Valley to attract those kinds of businesses and industries. And, you know, I hate to say this, but the difference between funding California and Florida is like night and day. You know, the people in California connect their economic well being to the universities. I don’t think that connection has ever really been made in Florida.
(Photo: California State University system)