Wednesday, April 25, 2018
Education

Florida's senators ignore the facts on USF Polytechnic split

The fight over Polytechnic's split from the University of South Florida has raged for so long, it is easy to lose sight of what is actually happening.

So forget the rhetoric. Forget the accusations, the name-calling and the Cuisinart concoction of the truth.

Look at it this way:

The students of USF Polytechnic are not in favor of this split. We know this because a survey of nearly 200 students conducted a few months ago showed that 84 percent of them hated the idea.

Eighty-four percent.

The faculty at USF Polytechnic is also against the split. We know this because a survey of more than half the staff showed 77 percent did not agree with the move.

The Board of Governors is not in favor of an immediate split. We know this because a board vote recommended a more methodical plan toward independence.

The chairman of the Senate's higher education committee is not happy with the split. We know this because he said it out loud while questioning why this issue was never brought before his committee for review.

The senator representing the Lakeland district that is home to Polytechnic is outraged by this split. We know this because she spent 15 minutes arguing against it on Thursday while explaining that many of her constituents feel they have been deceived.

And yet a bill to expedite Polytechnic's split passed overwhelmingly in the Senate last week.

Think of how absurd that is. Those directly involved in the university and those who are supposed to look out for the university's best interests say this is a bad idea. And their opinions apparently meant nothing to a roomful of lawmakers.

Why? Because one of the most powerful men in Tallahassee, Sen. JD Alexander of Lake Wales, wanted it that way. And that is simply wrong.

This is not a rant about the merits of the argument, nor the personalities of the people involved. This is not an insinuation of nefarious motives on one side, nor a suggestion of altruism on the other.

This is just a lamenting of the process.

Alexander says a Polytechnic university is desperately needed in this state. Many people would agree. Alexander says USF officials have purposefully delayed granting Polytechnic its independence. Some people may agree.

Alexander says it is a wise choice to create a new university in 2012 when accreditation is not guaranteed, when buildings are not in place, when student enrollment is not adequate and when state funds are critically low.

And practically the only people who agree are the 35 senators who voted with him.

To hear senators debate this issue late Thursday afternoon was to hear the sound of nonsense in stereo. It was loud, impassioned and drastically off key.

Sen. Mike Fasano of New Port Richey kept talking about the hundreds of millions of dollars a new university will cost taxpayers down the road, but it was a meaningless argument since the Board of Governors had already approved Polytechnic's eventual independence.

Sen. Jack Latvala of Clearwater talked about how USF was also uncooperative when it came to the St. Pete campus but conveniently ignored the concerns of the Board of Governors, the students at USF Poly and the circumvention of normal state protocol.

Sen. Evelyn Lynn of Ormond Beach, whose name was actually on the bill, was so hopelessly lost in the deep end that she couldn't even argue her own case and gave way to Alexander.

Sen. Paula Dockery of Lakeland was the only one with a real grasp of the issues, and a genuine sense of fair play.

So, of course, she was ignored.

The problem is not that one man disagrees with just about everyone else. The problem is that his peers, either out of fear or political quid pro quo, allowed him to get his way.

Alexander said the Polytechnic split would only cost an extra $100,000 this year. Yet no one asked how that was possible when Polytechnic would get its usual $35 million appropriation and USF would get an extra $10 million to absorb Polytechnic's staff.

Alexander said the split was necessary because new campus leadership would have to answer to legislators if the school did not follow the Board of Governors' direction. He didn't explain why legislators couldn't just demand the same of USF's leaders.

And on, and on, it went.

There are a lot of reasons why the Board of Governors plotted a more deliberate path for Polytechnic's independence. The most important, perhaps, is that it is a Polytechnic university in name only.

It is not filled with science, technology and math majors. According to Sen. Dockery's research, it is mostly a typical crop of students who found the Polk campus to be the most desirable for one reason or another.

To suddenly declare it an independent Polytechnic institution overnight is absurd. Every senator who voted that way should have known better.

But I think they already did.

They just didn't care.

John Romano can be reached at [email protected]

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