Saturday, November 18, 2017
Education

Board hears litany of hurdles Florida's newest university faces

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DAYTONA BEACH — Florida's newest university is already millions over budget for the construction of its new campus, has no faculty to attract students, few people volunteering to govern it and no money for technology labs.

Bringing to life the law that created Florida Polytechnic — billed by state leaders as the solution to a need for more graduates in science, technology, engineering and math — seems to be shaping up to be a bigger challenge than anyone anticipated.

"If people thought, 'Well, now the law's passed and that's it,' they are mistaken," said Mori Hosseini, the Florida Board of Governors member who heads a task force charged with overseeing the new university's creation. "It's an unbelievable process."

Hosseini stood by the goal of having students enrolled by fall 2013, even after hearing about all the hurdles.

"I'm hopeful," he said.

A Wednesday meeting at Daytona State College in Hosseini's hometown was the first time the Board of Governors group met since Gov. Rick Scott signed SB 1994 and created the new university out of the University of South Florida's branch campus in Lakeland. Creating Florida Polytechnic was a priority for departing Senate budget chairman JD Alexander, R-Lake Wales.

The move shortcuts a path laid out last year by the Board of Governors that would have required Florida Polytechnic to meet certain benchmarks, such as accreditation and a certain amount of students, before striking out on its own. The bill Scott signed includes those requirements but not as conditions for independence.

"It's a different approach to the same end," state university system chancellor Frank Brogan said. "But it's not just as simple as shifting into a different gear. There are many complexities we have continued to find as a result of the new approach we are now taking."

For instance, USF has to hand over all of USF Polytechnic's assets, property and contracts to the new university. But without a governing board for that institution set up yet, USF doesn't have anyone to give them to.

As of Wednesday, just eight people had applied for the new board's 11 slots.

Among them is Tom Cloud, an Orlando lawyer who represented the Williams Co. (the donor of the new campus land to USF Poly) and works for the Gray Robinson law firm that lobbied for the Heartland Parkway (another priority of Sen. Alexander).

Since submitting his application, Cloud has stopped working on the Williams project to avoid any perceived conflict of interest, USF trustee Steve Mitchell said.

Also applying are former state Sen. John Grant and a handful of Florida businessmen and retirees, including a former professor who included in his application that he had "traveled the world" and that he'd been married "56 years to the same girl."

Hosseini said the low number of applicants did not worry him. In his experience, he said, there's typically a rush of applications just before the deadline, which in this case is May 31.

"This committee will not put anybody on that board that we don't think is qualified," he said, repeating a call for applicants from across the nation.

In the meantime, the three-member Board of Governors task force gave USF guidance on several outstanding issues.

Until a new Florida Polytechnic board is created, the task force members said, USF should continue to oversee construction of the campus off Interstate 4. USF chief operating officer John Long said that project was projected to cost between $112 million and $115 million, with the campus only having $99 million on hand to build it.

USF Poly's former chancellor, Marshall Goodman, expected the extra money to come from donations, Long said. It was going to pay for technology labs and millions more in infrastructure.

With building materials already bought and the project already under way, it's probably too late to scale the plans back, Long said.

Thousands of dollars in leases for USF Poly business incubators — also authorized by Goodman — that have gone largely unused for years are also caught in limbo as the new university starts up.

"How in the world do we have rental buildings in place for incubators, but there's nothing to do?" Hosseini asked at the meeting. "Not only that, but I see furniture. … At one point I see media production equipment of $614,000. What happened?"

"It's actually much worse than that," said David Touchton, who is serving as USF Poly's interim chancellor. "When I got there, I was somewhat overwhelmed myself."

Canceling those leases isn't an option — at least not yet. For USF to receive $10 million to educate existing USF students in Lakeland until they graduate, the university must hand over USF Poly's assets intact.

So the board told USF to continue those monthly rental payments — except for one that is about to expire — and USF will eventually be reimbursed.

It wasn't an ideal solution, but according to the board's attorney, it should at least ensure that USF gets the money it's entitled to.

Board members wondered: How could such wasteful spending happen under USF's nose?

Because of another law, USF president Judy Genshaft reminded them.

In 2008, the Legislature gave USF Poly fiscal autonomy. Goodman had the authority to spend the campus's money how he saw fit. USF only made sure the expenditures were legal — not whether they were prudent.

"With that (law) came very strong orders for strict hands off the USF Poly campus and for the continuation of personnel that were to be left untouched and unsupervised. Period," Genshaft said.

"And that is not the University of South Florida's fault."

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