For more than a year, the Florida Board of Governors hammered out a detailed strategic plan that would take the state's 11 universities through the year 2025.
It includes goals like increasing enrollment, increasing graduates in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields, moving universities up in national rankings and keeping more students in Florida after they graduate. Nowhere in the two dozen pages does it mention a 12th university.
Yet when the strategic plan was unveiled at the board's November meeting, a pitch to separate the University of South Florida's branch campus in Lakeland into a free-standing institution was approved — and stole most of the spotlight.
That's because the idea, which had been talked about in public for just four months prior, was pushed by JD Alexander, the powerful budget chairman in the state Senate.
The board voted to give Alexander his university, provided USF Polytechnic met certain benchmarks before splitting off, like accreditation and the first part of its new campus being built, a process expected to take years.
So much for that.
The thoughtful track is about to be thrown out the window, with legislation to immediately split USF Poly approved Friday in the Legislature's budget proposal. It's now up to Gov. Rick Scott to decide on Florida Polytechnic.
Frank Martin, a transportation and rail expert with Atkins Global, chaired the Board of Governors' strategic planning committee and helped write the long-term plan for the state university system. He was just appointed chair of the board's academic and student affairs committee, which means he'll get to work out ways to bring aspects of that plan to reality.
As we wait for Scott's decision, we sat down with Martin, 61, to find out whether this 12th university that wasn't planned for changes things.
What kind of process was involved in putting this strategic plan together?
We started with having a number of board sessions, just trying to ascertain what members' key issues were, starting in January 2010. It was an update to an existing plan that was set to expire, so this was a natural progression, developing a new plan. You want to take a look at where you've been, and also identify where you'd like to see the state university system go, so it was critical. I wanted to make sure as we began our journey that I had input from all the members. Then we had meetings over a two-year period, to have a document complete by the end of last year.
What were the top priorities you heard from members?
Excellence. Making sure we have a quality university system, making sure we have a productive system, then identifying objectives for a knowledge-based economy.
When you look at the plan, a number of goals are concerned with the quality of our system. We really have a great system, but the question becomes, are we preparing our students to face this global economy that we know exists? Things change at a very rapid pace. We need to make sure our programs are all relevant.
The plan talks about developing a more predictable funding plan for the state university system. Yet, this year the Legislature's budget cuts $300 million from universities, assuming much of it will be covered by reserve funds or tuition revenues. Surely this isn't the funding plan the BOG envisioned. What should it look like?
From a 30,000-foot level, we need to work with the Higher Education Coordinating Council and the Governor's Office and collectively say that if we want our system to grow, based upon the needs of our residents in the state of Florida, everybody needs an understanding of the amount of funding that it does take to make sure we have a quality system. We need to have a very open, frank, candid dialogue about what it's going to take to get everyone to ultimately have a buy-in to what that funding should look like — particular revenue streams from what sources. That's yet to be determined. I'm not sure how long it will take to come to a consensus.
As we looked at the plan, everything is geared toward performance. In having benchmarks, setting the targets and the goals, it would be very easy to move to some type of performance-based funding method.
The plan also sets as goals increased enrollment and increased graduates in STEM fields. You did not mention a 12th university as a potential solution. How will this new Florida Polytechnic University fit into the plan?
The document is a living document and subject to change. It could be a 12th, 13th or 14th university. What we have in the plan would still be relevant to whatever universities we may have in our state over the next 13 years. It's not just a plan developed for the 11 universities. Each university puts together an annual work plan they present to the board, based on the system's total overall strategic plan, to achieve those goals and objectives. At whatever point we have this 12th university, it will have to do the same.
In developing the strategic plan, was there ever any discussion about adding a 12th university?
We didn't get into the weeds, or detail specific criteria for, say, a 12th university. I think that while we had some preliminary discussions, there was nothing definitive, in terms of a specific direction to go in. That was something that was going to be addressed at a future point.
We are not — how can I say this — we are all serving in this capacity to provide guidance for the system. I feel that collectively we have been provided an opportunity by developing a plan, and whatever happens, we will work collaboratively with all the parties concerned to provide whatever is necessary to make sure this is a seamless process.
Your plan for the system took more than a year to put together. By comparison, the plan to create the state's next university was developed in a matter of a few months. Was that adequate?
We live in a very dynamic environment, and things change. The fact that we have a plan now, and the fact that there may be a 12th university, again the plan will stand on its own merit. As the system works with the University of South Florida and USF Poly to achieve whatever is ultimately decided by the governor, then we will move forward in that direction.
Collectively we would all be working together toward the common goal for the students that are in our system. At the end of the day, we have to remember that we're all here representing them.
Kim Wilmath can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3337.