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Top USF administrator resigns over budget decisions

The University of South Florida on Wednesday announced a three-year plan to get back on solid financial footing, navigating what the school's president is calling a "new normal." But the internal debate this summer that led up to that news apparently has not been without friction.

In a letter outlining the plan, USF president Judy Genshaft said she appreciated the staff's "candor" on the issue. And a high-ranking administrator recently resigned his post, expressing strong disagreement with the school's budget decisions.

Graham Tobin, vice provost for strategic and budget planning at USF, announced his resignation in a letter sent to USF provost Ralph Wilcox. Tobin disagreed with what he called "draconian" budget cuts he said would disproportionately affect academics, including what he called intentions to "balance the budget in a single year."

"This plan hits at the heart of the mission of the university as laid out in the strategic plan and will significantly set back the university's progress," he wrote.

The Times received a copy of the July 30 letter Wednesday. A USF spokeswoman declined to comment on Tobin's departure from the post, calling it a personnel issue. Tobin was traveling outside the country and could not be reached.

Genshaft's letter went out Wednesday evening to the USF community detailing a tweaked version of plans she presented to faculty and staff a month ago.

"I have listened to ideas and input from every corner of the system on how our plan affects USF's academic, research and operational enterprises," Genshaft wrote.

USF has been trying to reign in spending and change its financial picture after prolonged state cutbacks, slashed federal funds and increased pressure to stay competitive with the two schools the state has ranked pre-eminent — the University of Florida and Florida State University.

Genshaft has called for a boost in reserve funds, which impact the school's bond rating. In July, she called for an increase of 5 percent over the next year. Wednesday, she said that plan now would stretch over three years, with a goal set for each of the years.

"A longer time frame is needed to identify further efficiencies in the system while developing new sources of revenue that will allow USF's academic and research enterprises to transition," Genshaft wrote.

The university has placed a hold on filling vacant faculty and staff positions, while planning enhanced merit raises for some staff members. If a professor leaves, deans of colleges now make a case for or against filling the job. If they make a new hire, they have to offset costs in other ways.

In his letter, Tobin praised the progress USF has made over the past five years, including moving closer to the school's goal of becoming a member of the American Association of Universities. But he said budget proposals didn't mesh with the university's goals, which he said may have to be adjusted to "reflect USF's new direction."

"I prefer not to be associated with this," he wrote.

Vice provost since 2008, Tobin had a laundry list of responsibilities, including strategic planning and acting as a liaison to the USF Board of Trustees and Board of Governors, which oversees the State University System. He also is a professor of geography and a prolific researcher who has studied the aftermath of storms, including Hurricane Charley. According to his letter, he plans to take leave in the fall and spring, then return to teaching and research in August 2014.

Members of USF's Board of Trustees are scheduled to meet for workshops today to discuss, among other things, finances.

"These decisions are necessary today to protect our ability to invest in our new endeavors and our employees in the future," Genshaft wrote. "Failure to act now will cost us more in the long run."

Stephanie Hayes can be reached at shayes@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3394.

Top USF administrator resigns over budget decisions 08/14/13 [Last modified: Wednesday, August 14, 2013 9:42pm]
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