ST. PETERSBURG — Though barely moved into his new office, the interim leader of the University of South Florida St. Petersburg knows there's a touchy subject simmering on campus: independence.
Should USF St. Petersburg follow USF Polytechnic's recent move and split off from the Tampa campus?
"That's something I've heard from some," Bill Hogarth said this week, his first on the job. "Should we have our own identity and not be the Bulls?"
It's a hotter topic than ever, now that USF's campus in Lakeland has broken away to become the state's 12th university. The idea that USF St. Petersburg should go its own way has been discussed behind the scenes for years, said Hogarth, who previously was dean of USF's College of Marine Science, which is based in St. Petersburg.
But "Polytechnic probably got more people talking about it," he said.
Some people want more of a unique identity, while others want more direct control of the school's destiny, Hogarth said. Some complain about money, while others seem frustrated with admissions.
He's still trying to figure out which grievances, if any, have merit.
"We need to look at the underlying issues," he said.
It's not a huge group of people who feel that way, Hogarth said. But it's enough to prompt him to ponder ways to smooth out the sometimes-confusing relationship among the USF campuses.
USF St. Petersburg, like USF Sarasota-Manatee, has its own accreditation. Though the regional campuses share many central services with the main USF campus in Tampa — including legal services, marketing and human resources — they are autonomous in budgeting and governance. They hire their own staff, recruit and admit their own students and hold their own graduations.
Despite that freedom, some people apparently feel jilted. Clearly, Hogarth said, there are some snags in communication.
"They're 30 miles away," Hogarth said of USF Tampa. "How do we bridge this issue?"
He said he plans to talk to USF president Judy Genshaft about it soon.
For the record, Hogarth doesn't think splitting off is a good idea. He thinks even pondering the idea creates a distraction from the school's core mission of educating students.
Student leaders don't like it either. USFSP student body president Mark Lombardi-Nelson said he's heard the independence rumblings, but doesn't take them seriously.
"We enjoy being part of this system, we enjoy going to football games, and we enjoy being a 'small' school with 'big' school opportunities," said the entrepreneurship and finance junior.
USF Sarasota-Manatee chancellor Arthur Guilford agrees.
"In St. Pete, I have heard that," Guilford said of separation. "In Sarasota? No. … My people are perfectly content and happy to be a part of the USF system. We think the branding we get, in and of itself, from USF is worth everything."
That's got to be music to USF Tampa's ears.
USF spokeswoman Lara Wade-Martinez put it this way: "USF Tampa, USF St. Petersburg and USF Sarasota-Manatee are a good team and form a good partnership — good for the students and good for our communities."
Even state Sen. Jack Latvala, who during the Polytechnic independence fervor last session said he would be open to exploring the idea at USF St. Petersburg, has softened.
"I do not think it is a good idea at present," Latvala, R-St. Petersburg, wrote in an email. "But I will always continue to monitor how the St. Pete campus fares within the USF system."
Hogarth didn't say who is pushing for independence at St. Petersburg, only that it's mostly people in administration — not students.
Whatever happens, Hogarth said he hopes it's "thought through very carefully."
"It may be easier to get a politician to (legislate the creation of a new university) than to implement it," he said. "With the budget going down every year, you add another university, and that dilutes the money even more. So you've got to raise the funds, but giving is not what it used to be. … Are you going to get more students if you're independent? I think for a while you may not."
At the same time, USF St. Petersburg should have an identity that's distinctive, he said. Students want traditions of their own.
One idea he's heard: a new mascot — perhaps the Bull Sharks, a nod to USF St. Petersburg's waterfront campus.
And he thinks it would be a good idea to have more involvement between students at the different campuses — like friendly fundraising competitions, for instance.
For now, Hogarth said students shouldn't worry about anything but their classes. Even if the powers-that-be decide USF St. Petersburg would do better on its own, he figures it would be years away from actually happening.
"You have to know it's out there," Hogarth said, "but you just keep moving."
Kim Wilmath can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3337.