USF leaders move to calm fears over consolidation plan

Students walk across the campus of USF St. Petersburg, which has been at the center of a controversy this week over a legislative plan to consolidate the three branches of the USF System into one institution based in Tampa. USF leaders moved Friday to quell rumors about the plan. [SCOTT KEELER   |   Times]
Students walk across the campus of USF St. Petersburg, which has been at the center of a controversy this week over a legislative plan to consolidate the three branches of the USF System into one institution based in Tampa. USF leaders moved Friday to quell rumors about the plan. [SCOTT KEELER | Times]
Published January 19 2018
Updated January 19 2018

ST. PETERSBURG — Holding a piece of computer paper and a microphone, the leader of the University of South Florida St. Petersburg began a Friday afternoon forum by repeating the USF administration’s new mantra.

He reassured the crowd before him that the USF System will keep moving forward, no matter what happens in Tallahassee.

Then he got down to the rumors.

"This is not a USF Tampa move," said interim chancellor Martin Tadlock. "This was not a system takeover."

In recent days, USF’s top brass have walked a neutral line in responding to a controversial legislative proposal that would strip the independent accreditation from USF St. Petersburg and USF Sarasota-Manatee, melding them into a single university under Tampa control. Leaders have stressed collaboration and careful deliberation as they consider the potential plan.

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: In major shift, House bill would turn three USF universities into one

Meanwhile, on St. Petersburg’s defiantly independent campus, one with a history of David vs. Goliath tension, rumors have flown. Since Tampa administrators forced the ouster of their popular chancellor in the fall, some were predisposed to call the new proposal a power grab. So on Friday, about 100 faculty, staff and others crowded into a room to hear from their interim leader.

Tadlock insisted that USF President Judy Genshaft was as shocked as anybody when she found out about the proposal late last week.

"I don’t think it’s a conspiracy theory," Tadlock said. "I think it’s simply legislators who want a preeminent university in St. Petersburg and feel this is the way to do it."

He told people not to panic, that USF St. Petersburg would have a seat at the negotiating table. He said a loss of accreditation wouldn’t necessarily mean a campus overhaul, and it wouldn’t mean job losses. It wouldn’t mean returning to the days when the campus struggled for autonomy under Tampa’s authoritative eye. He rattled off a list of campus achievements, from new degree programs to another residence hall in the works.

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: In St. Petersburg, skeptics sneer at plan to concentrate USF power in Tampa

Genshaft has stressed that each institution would retain its distinct identity should the bill become law.

"We are a strong University of South Florida brand," Genshaft said during a conference call Friday morning with the board of trustees. "No matter what, we’re moving forward."

Trustee Stephanie Goforth, head of the St. Petersburg campus board, said USF St. Petersburg isn’t the same school it was in 2001. That’s when state lawmakers pushed USF officials to give the campus more autonomy, setting it on a path to gaining independent accreditation.

"The president and I agree. We will not, and I will not, let USF St. Pete go back to what we were in 2001," Goforth said.

She and other trustees used the conference call to discuss the proposal, which appears in a lengthy higher education bill backed by Rep. Ray Rodrigues, R-Estero. Rep. Chris Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor, played a role in the USF idea.

Board Chairman Brian Lamb said Sprowls has the region’s best interests in mind.

USF Tampa is poised to reach preeminence, the state designation that rewards top universities with millions of dollars. But under the current setup, that money wouldn’t flow to USF St. Petersburg or Sarasota-Manatee — hence the consolidation plan, which would theoretically let the wealth flow throughout a single, preeminent university.

Since the performance of St. Petersburg and Sarasota students would become more important for metrics, proponents say Tampa would be more inclined to share resources with the regional schools, including support services and academic programs.

Admissions standards are already on the rise at USF St. Petersburg. Last fall, university leaders got wind of a plan to change how USF reports preeminence metrics, adding the regional schools into the mix.

So while St. Petersburg leaders anticipated the preeminence change, the accreditation bill came as a shock, Tadlock said.

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: How a small campus grew into an independent USF St. Petersburg

In the audience at Tadlock’s forum, longtime USF St. Petersburg professor Jay Sokolovsky said legislators must be made aware of the strained history between the schools.

"The past is often a prelude," Sokolovsky said. "We must be very clear-eyed about the historical prelude about this campus and the other campus and how they have been treated."

On Friday, another voice of dissent emerged as U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist, who represents Pinellas County, wrote a letter to state House and Senate leaders.

"The proposed move in Tallahassee to strip independence without appropriate public input is unwise and not in the best interests of the student body," Crist said.

Bill Heller, the beloved, longest-serving president in USF St. Petersburg history, said after Tadlock’s talk that he’s not yet taking a stance.

"I’m waiting," he said. "We need to think about it."

Contact Claire McNeill at cmcneill@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8321.

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