In the state capitol on Wednesday, lawmakers breezed through the bullet points of a higher education bill. They skimmed past a hot-button proposal to consolidate the University of South Florida System into a single university without a peep of pushback.
In St. Petersburg, frustration simmered. Local leaders wondered how, exactly, the city’s fiercely independent university would benefit were it to be reabsorbed by USF’s headquarters in Tampa. In many eyes, the small waterfront campus at USF St. Petersburg was gathering momentum. Why change course?
At a ribbon cutting, Mayor Rick Kriseman said he and chamber of commerce leader Chris Steinocher talked about the proposal, trading tales of bewilderment.
"I’m very disappointed that I learned about this from the paper as opposed to receiving any kind of outreach from USF," Kriseman said. On an issue of this magnitude, he said he would have expected a call from USF System president Judy Genshaft or someone on her staff.
But the university wasn’t consulted on the bill, say USF officials and sponsor Rep. Ray Rodrigues, R-Estero. Rodrigues said he expects to have those talks now that the bill is on the table.
The idea came to Rodrigues, he said, as he worked on the House version of a massive higher education package. He was pondering tweaks to the state’s preeminence program, which rewards top-performing universities.
USF Tampa will soon get that bonus funding, but because of their separate accreditation, USF St. Petersburg and Sarasota-Manatee won’t benefit.
"Our concern from the student perspective is there is no incentive for USF to share the resources that preeminence is going to bring to them beyond the borders of the Tampa campus," Rodrigues said in committee. "We want all students within the USF family to benefit from the preeminence that is coming."
Plus, since USF is the only state university with separate institutions, consolidation would bring it in line with its peers.
The bill would have USF develop a plan to phase out accreditation in St. Petersburg and Sarasota by 2020, bringing all operations under one Tampa umbrella, as in earlier days.
Then, to compete for preeminence, USF would be scored on all students, not just Tampa’s.
St. Petersburg leaders, who have watched their campus struggle for power over the years, were skeptical.
"When you look historically at the way that campus was treated when it did not have the autonomy it has currently, for the most part, it was pretty ignored," Kriseman said. He called the proposal "a real setback."
The St. Petersburg school has blossomed in recent decades, but particularly since gaining separate accreditation in 2006. Fundraising and growth have boomed as the university has become a first choice for some students. It admits its own students, gets separate state funding and can develop its own programs.
Yet the issue of self-governance has persisted. This summer, the ouster of the campus’s popular leader, Sophia Wisniewska, reignited questions among some professors about Tampa’s motives.
"It’s very clear that there are some inherent complications with the main campus," said former City Council member Karl Nurse. "If the Legislature is interested in a campus that is growing and educating more students, they should just leave it alone."
Pinellas County Commissioner Ken Welch worried about losing a university committed to Pinellas needs.
"I’m trying to understand what problem this legislation is meant to solve because, in my view, USF St. Petersburg is a rising star," he said.
Commissioner Charlie Justice agreed: "The fact that they’re taking this action without community input is incredibly troubling."
Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, said he’s watching the bill closely to understand the House’s perspective.
Some leaders wondered whether the sudden absence of powerful state Sen. Jack Latvala, an advocate for the St. Petersburg campus, had opened the door to its potential takeover.
Others — such as Kriseman, a former legislator — suspected that USF administrators played a role.
"My experience is that something like this doesn’t typically happen unless somebody at the university wants it to happen," the mayor said.
State Rep. Chris Sprowls, who advocated for the provision, said he hasn’t spoken to Genshaft, but has talked with community leaders and policy experts.
"This is a common sense initiative that affords St. Petersburg and Sarasota-Manatee the opportunity to have a preeminent university in their backyard," Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor, wrote in a text message. "Of course we welcome all feedback."
The bill now moves to the House’s higher education appropriations committee, then the education committee.
"It’s amazing to me how often this bad idea keeps coming back to life," said retired Sen. Don Sullivan, a fierce advocate of St. Petersburg independence. He wistfully recalled his own effort in 2000 to sever the campus from USF entirely — an attempted coup that failed by one vote.
"The natural instinct of the Tampa campus to dominate the curriculum and to dominate the control of the budget resulted in Sarasota and Pinellas county getting short shrift," he said. "I wish we had the University of St. Petersburg."
Contact Claire McNeill at [email protected] or (727) 893-8321.