USF Lakeland campus' independence has a champion in state Sen. J.D. Alexander

A state senator who holds the purse strings to Florida's budget appears ready to upset the status quo at the state university system. And so far, there's barely been a murmur of dissent.

J.D. Alexander, a Republican senator from Polk County, wants to create a new state university in his home county by severing the Lakeland branch from the University of South Florida system.

Alexander has proved his clout. During the last legislative session, he was able to ensure that USF Polytechnic got $35 million for construction of a new campus along Interstate 4.

It was the only university capital improvement project not vetoed by Gov. Rick Scott.

Now Alexander, who will be forced out of the Legislature by term limits at the end of next year, wants that new location to be Florida's next public university.

The Board of Governors, which oversees Florida's 11 public universities, is set to meet Thursday to talk about Alexander's push for an institution he has called Florida Polytechnic. The state senator argues that USF Poly's growth has been hampered by its ties to a mega-university and that its focus on engineering and applied science will generate jobs and prosperity for the region and state.

"Florida is forecasting a need for 100,000 engineers," Alexander said in late August after pitching his new university plan to the governor. "If we can help create more of those . . . that's a great thing."

But here's the current reality:

• At the three commencements since being dubbed a "Polytechnic" in mid 2008, USF's Lakeland branch has had one graduate in engineering.

• The majority of its undergraduates are in business and elementary education.

• In the past three years, USF Poly has granted 53 undergraduate degrees in information technology, but all courses for that major are online.

• The highest level math course offered at USF Poly is college algebra; students have to go elsewhere for calculus.

"We're a work in progress," said Samantha Lane, USF Poly's head of communications. The campus opened 23 years ago.

Perhaps surprisingly, Judy Genshaft, president of the USF system in Tampa and a power player in her own right, seems to be putting up nominal resistance to the proposed split. In a letter to the Board of Governors, Genshaft said she would be "willing to consider options" at USF Poly that she wouldn't consider elsewhere.

But a few people are beginning to have doubts. Student leaders at USF Poly say they chose the campus for its big-name brand and small-college feel and worry about the value of a diploma that is missing the USF name.

And Rick Dantzler, a Winter Haven lawyer who served in the state Legislature from 1983 to 1998, said he now regrets joining 28 other community leaders who signed a letter in late July supporting independence. "I got carried away with a rush of civic and county pride and forgot about trying to do it the right way," he said.

Dantzler can understand advocates wanting to strike while the iron is hot, "because of J.D. (Alexander)'s juice, it's hot now."

"But there's a good argument to be made that when times get tough financially, it's better to be tied to the mother ship."

• • •

Listening to Marshall Goodman, USF Poly's regional chancellor and biggest cheerleader, it can be tough to separate the aspirations from the actuality. He repeatedly refers to an enrollment of more than 4,000 at the Lakeland campus, all commuters. In June, he told investors who are considering financing a dorm on the new campus that enrollment was "approximately" 4,800.

But that number includes students who are taking classes online as well as on campus. It also includes thousands of students from other USF branches — mostly Tampa — who can't find or can't fit into similar classes on their home campus.

For the 2010-11 academic year, the total unduplicated student head count at USF Poly was 4,069. But most of those were from other USF campuses; only 1,663 claimed Poly as their home.

Students at Lakeland said they are used to being stepchildren in the USF system but said the benefits of being linked to an internationally recognized university far outweigh the disadvantages.

They praise the teachers, small classes and, most of all, the Polk county location, which is convenient and affordable for a student body mostly drawn from the immediate area.

But several students said they have yet to see the impact of the "polytechnic" concept on their classes. And all the talk of a high job placement rate for poly graduates has yet to be seen.

A survey of graduating seniors in June found that 10 percent had received job offers; 39 percent were looking for work but had not yet received any offers; 27 percent were continuing with full-time positions previously held, some with promotions; 24 percent were not seeking work.

Students worry that if USF's name is removed from their diplomas, they'll have an even tougher time finding work.

"Those fighting for this change already have jobs," said Sage Stevens, a 37-year-old senior business major. "I want out of Polk County, and USF is widely known. But Florida Poly U?"

Students already fear that the forces pushing for independence are too strong to be stopped. One clue, they feel: A few weeks ago, a student participating in a photo for a recruiting brochure was told to remove his USF Polytechnic name tag.

• • •

USF Poly is already in the middle of major changes.

In November it will break ground on a new campus that has been on the books for eight years, pending funding. Next year, the school will start accepting freshmen and sophomores. It has also submitted an application for separate accreditation from USF, like the university's other two regional campuses have.

With all that change stirring, why seek independence now?

Proponents say "local control," both in terms of funding and curriculum development, is critical, particularly as the new campus gets under way.

Goodman, who has been running the Polk County campus for nearly six years, said his requests for construction dollars are now lumped together with requests from other USF branches and prioritized before being sent to legislators.

Though the school has received $66.8 million in state funds over the past six years for the project, including this year's $35 million, Goodman thinks it would do better in the fight for public funding on its own. "At least we'd be sitting at the table," he said.

Similarly, as part of USF, the Lakeland campus' requests for new degree programs now have to be considered against requests from the other USF campuses. Separate, Polytechnic could bring its degree requests directly to the Board of Governors. Both Goodman and Alexander point to the 13 new degree programs the branch wanted last year; only three were pushed forward by USF administrators.

"When a system has four children, you wait your turn," Goodman said, careful to add that he is neutral about the decision to split. "Getting where we want to be will take decades being the baby in the USF system."

But others suggest boosters are being unrealistic about the expense of building a new university from scratch and getting those dollars from a tight state budget — especially as the new kid in the room and when your most powerful political ally is no longer in office.

State Sen. Paula Dockery, Alexander's Republican colleague from Polk County, warns that a hasty decision to sever her home district's university from USF could be harmful in the long run, especially if it's based on political, rather than educational or financial reasons.

"You have a legislator (Alexander) who's very committed to the project who is in the position to hold a budget ax to someone's head," said Dockery, who doesn't necessarily oppose the separation but doesn't see the need to rush. "I've learned a rushed decision is bad decision because you deal with unintended consequences after the fact."

The Board of Governors may make a decision as early as November.

• • •

The last time USF lost a campus was in 2001 when New College of Florida split off to become the state's 11th university.

The move offers a hint of the cost it takes to create an independent university.

New College's vice president for finance administration, John Martin, said the school had to pay $5.4 million to cover resources once shared with USF.

It pays an additional $1.5 million for services still shared with USF's Sarasota-Manatee campus — the library, police and student health facilities. New College earned its own accreditation in 2004.

But New College always intended to remain a very small campus. Even now, its enrollment doesn't top 900. USF Poly has said it hopes to get closer to 16,000 students.

A better comparison might be with Florida Gulf Coast University, built from the ground-up outside Fort Myers in the late 1990s. It took six years and more than $70 million in state capital and operating funds to start that institution. The school, which has nearly 13,000 students, gets about $40 million a year in state funding.

J.D. Alexander also had a hand in the creation of Florida Gulf Coast University: A company controlled by his family donated land for the Fort Myers campus — and made millions by selling the surrounding land now filled with homes, hotels and malls.

Kris Hundley can be reached at khundley@sptimes.com or (727) 892-2996. Kim Wilmath can be reached at kwilmath@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3337.

USF Lakeland campus' independence has a champion in state Sen. J.D. Alexander 09/10/11 [Last modified: Sunday, September 11, 2011 12:45am]

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