Poly support group: It's time to come together
Florida Polytechnic, the state's 12th university, is here. So, no matter how you felt about the idea before it made its way through the Legislature, it's time to come together to support it. That was the message of the new Florida Poly Vision group that debuted Thursday in Lakeland.
"I think there's an awful lot of people here, regardless of where they stood before the decision was made, who are now saying, 'Look, this is an opportunity,'" said the group's leader, Cliff Otto, president of the Saddle Creek Corporation. "Whether we wanted it or not, it's here. Shame on us if we don't take advantage of it."
Without offering many details, the group said it would work to spread a positive message about Florida Polytechnic -- a school that was born into controversy. Students, faculty and the University of South Florida (from which the school is splitting off) opposed its creation. The issue divided Polk County and dominated the higher education landscape during the last Legislative session.
The new nonprofit group, said Otto, will serve as the voice of the new university until a Board of Trustees is set up (applications were due today). It will fill the void of a booster association, which established universities use primarily for fundraising, though later in the news conference, Otto said the group would not fundraise.
Membership is already 70 people strong and growing, he said, with business leaders from all across Polk County joining in.
"All of us are committed to creating a needed, positive voice," Otto said.
There was one voice that seemed to ring out loudest:
"Well," said Sen. JD Alexander, who pushed hardest to split the school off during his last term, "I hope you begin to see, this isn't about me. This is about the idea of how to move our economy and our region and our state forward."
For too long, Alexander said, Florida has lagged in the race to innovation. Harkening back to the start of his own college career at Georgia Tech, ("Where it was cool to be a nerd"), Alexander said the new Florida Polytechnic will help fill a gap in Florida's economic development.
Florida's current universities, he said, do not produce enough graduates in science, technology, engineering and math -- the main focus of the new university.
"We had 17 percent of graduates graduating in STEM eight years ago," Alexander said. "Seventeen percent are graduating in STEM now."
While the total number of STEM graduates has gone up during that time -- increasing 25 percent over just the past four years, according to data from the Florida Board of Governors -- the percentage of those STEM students as part of the total number graduates has hovered just under 18 percent, as regular enrollment has also grown. The BOG's recent accountability report touts that Florida is ranked No. 3 in the nation among university systems for undergraduate STEM degree production.