TAMPA — A day after returning from Tallahassee, where Florida lawmakers hammered out their budget for the year, University of South Florida president Judy Genshaft was declaring success.
"This is very good news," Genshaft said at a news conference Tuesday. "It is very important to me that we care for our students, No. 1."
Though Sen. JD Alexander got what he wanted Monday, with House and Senate leaders agreeing on legislation to immediately create Florida Polytechnic, the state's 12th university, the budget gives USF extra money to absorb the costs of that transition.
And Alexander may not get it as quickly as he hoped.
The deal lawmakers agreed to would have the new Florida Polytechnic seek accreditation from scratch. The application already submitted by USF for Polytechnic's separate campus accreditation, like USF campuses in St. Petersburg and Sarasota, now goes out the window.
And it makes a difference.
Under USF's umbrella, the campus could have potentially achieved separate accreditation within a year.
Starting fresh, it could take Florida Polytechnic anywhere from three to six years. And at least the first class would graduate without accreditation, which means no federal financial aid.
Current USF students and those already admitted would be protected.
That timeline was solidified in a letter Genshaft received from Southern Association of Colleges and Schools president Belle Wheelan on Tuesday.
It came after Alexander — in making his case to fellow senators to split the school — declared that the new university could get separate accreditation by this summer.
At this point, the issue is out of USF's hands — while extra funding is in USF's hands.
However long it takes for the new institution to get off the ground, USF can now promise all current USF Poly students that they'll graduate in Lakeland with a USF degree.
"I am very pleased with the outcome," Genshaft said. "The University of South Florida is stronger than ever."
Under the new plan, USF will get $10 million each year for five years to allow current and recently admitted USF Poly students to finish their degrees at the existing USF Poly-Polk State College joint campus.
After all those students graduate, the $10 million recurring dollars will go back to the main USF budget. The plan sets a five-year timeline, but Genshaft said she will continue supporting existing USF students in Lakeland if it takes longer than that.
USF would also get back $6 million for its new pharmacy school, which was previously funded in USF Poly's budget.
The budget still requires approval by both chambers. Then it needs to be signed by Gov. Rick Scott, who has said he's not sure splitting off USF Poly right away is the best idea. It could be a tough call, given that the extra $10 million and $6 million is tied to the bill that would make Poly independent.
Aside from the split issue, Genshaft had lots of praise Tuesday for the rest of the proposed budget, with $300 million in cuts to the university system spread equally — a serious concern because the Senate's original spending plan gave USF a disproportionate 58 percent cut.
The cuts will still be painful — 21 percent to USF Tampa before factoring in potential new tuition revenues — but at least they're fair, Genshaft said.
She credited the Tampa Bay community's outpouring of calls and emails, numbering tens of thousands per day, for the Legislature's change of heart.
"Through all this, it has brought the University of South Florida community together as one voice," Genshaft said. "USF is absolutely bullish."
Kim Wilmath can be reached at [email protected]