BOCA RATON — State higher education leaders voted Wednesday to require the University of South Florida Polytechnic to meet strict benchmarks before gaining independence, a move that freezes the Lakeland school's efforts to break away from the USF system.
The vote came at the end of a four-hour debate, with impassioned arguments coming from power players on both sides.
State Sen. J.D. Alexander, who has pushed aggressively for independence, said under USF's umbrella, the Lakeland branch campus has been left out in the cold when it comes to funding priorities and new degree programs.
"All I can tell you is that it has been torturous every step of the way," Alexander told the board.
His comments came after USF president Judy Genshaft urged state leaders to keep the USF system together, vowing that she would remain committed to the polytechnic mission of applied learning in science, technology, engineering and math.
"We are not a barrier whatsoever," Genshaft said.
Wednesday's debate was perhaps one of the biggest and toughest decisions for the Board of Governors yet. It came as state leaders are having to wrestle with a $2 billion budget shortfall, and it interrupted the board's process of preparing a system-wide strategic plan.
It all started 14 weeks ago, with a letter sent to the board from 30 Polk County residents urging them to set USF Poly free.
In the end, the board essentially dodged the final yes-or-no, putting it off for at least three to five years. That's how long it will take for the campus to meet just one of the conditions, to secure separate accreditation.
USF Poly must also increase its full-time enrollment by almost 40 percent with almost half of its students in the STEM-related fields of science, technology, engineering and math. In addition, the campus must build four of the elements in phase one of its new campus plan including classrooms, residence and part of a wellness center.
Once that all is done, USF Poly can return to the Board of Governors, which sets policies for Florida's 11 public universities. The board didn't give a timetable.
Still, both Genshaft and Alexander seemed to declare victory; happy that it didn't split, and happy it will have the chance in the future, respectively.
Alexander, who will be term-limited out of the Senate at the end of this upcoming session, said he thinks Florida will see an independent polytechnic to fruition even when he's gone from power. But he offered a warning: If the school fails to meet those benchmarks under USF, it may have to find another "sponsor."
Genshaft balked at that suggestion, saying any change in that structure would be up to the board.
It was standing-room only as the meeting unfolded Wednesday at Florida Atlantic University. USF students wearing green "United as One" T-shirts came by bus. USF faculty, staff and trustees were all over the room, with representatives from USF Poly at the fringes.
Genshaft made her stance known for the first time, garnering thunderous applause when she finished her pitch to keep USF together.
Marshall Goodman, the USF Poly regional chancellor who has fought alongside Alexander to break away, again faced critical questions about his ambitious separation plan. One board member called it "a piece of crap."
"There's insubordination going on here," said John Temple. "We've got to get control of this."
The consensus seemed to be that while Goodman's main thrust — adding more STEM degrees — is essential to the state university system, now is not the time to set the school off on its own.
"I'm not crazy about the plan," said board member Tico Perez. "I don't know if I have confidence in the plan. . . . But if you go through a meaningful process, we'll support you."
When he finished his presentation, Goodman returned to his seat in silence, until a slow smattering of clapping broke through. At one point, the board asked Genshaft whether she had the authority to replace Goodman.
Gently, she said yes. "If there is something that goes awry, I need to straighten that out . . . or it puts the whole 47,000-student institution at risk," she said.
One of the biggest fireworks came from the board's lone student member, Michael Long, from New College, who said he was confused by Alexander's comments to the board about longstanding support for higher education. Long said he met with Alexander before the meeting and asked the Senate budget chairman what would happen if the board voted against independence, and Alexander told him that higher ed support would end.
"I do not feel very well represented by J.D. and his comments," Long said.
He then told the board that USF students support keeping the system intact, prompting the mass of green in the audience to stand up and shout, "Go Bulls!"
Kim Wilmath can be reached at email@example.com