TALLAHASSEE — University of South Florida president Judy Genshaft and state Sen. JD Alexander met privately for an hour Monday, and while they described their conversation as fruitful, the two did not reach an agreement on the university's proposed budget for next year.
Genshaft flew to the state Capitol to lobby Alexander to restore some of the $78 million in proposed budget cuts that university leaders say unfairly targeted USF. The cuts, to many, were a reaction to Alexander's desire to turn USF's branch campus in Lakeland into the state's 12th university.
After the meeting, Genshaft said she would have to crunch some more numbers for Alexander before returning to the bargaining table.
While Genshaft said the meeting was positive, she added, "We have nothing in writing . . . there are no numbers in black and white."
It was the first time Genshaft and Alexander have met face-to-face to talk since last summer, when the idea to create an independent university in Lakeland boiled over. The meeting Monday capped a tumultuous two weeks that started when Alexander, the Senate budget chairman, surprised university officials by supporting a bill to immediately split off USF Polytechnic, a move that rushes a plan already laid out by the Florida Board of Governors.
Alexander later proposed massive and, according to the university, disproportionate budget cuts for the school.
After meeting for an hour in Alexander's budget office, Genshaft and Alexander appeared together and addressed reporters. They revealed few details about what was said in private and instead delivered a vague, albeit friendly, report about possibilities going forward.
For weeks, Alexander has said he doesn't trust Genshaft to help USF Poly become independent.
"Many times I get proven wrong," Alexander said.
He said there may be a way for USF to remain "engaged" in the school as it splits. He did not say how.
"We're headed toward a split of the Polytech campus from USF," Alexander said. "While we had a discussion about how that could best be accomplished from both Poly's view and USF's view . . . at this point I'm not comfortable going into great detail."
Genshaft reiterated the benchmarks already laid out by the Florida Board of Governors, which would allow the school to split off after gaining enrollment and accreditation, among other things.
"We've always agreed it would be an independent campus," Genshaft said. The question is how to get there in a way that ensures fairness to USF.
"We all know times are very difficult. We're not saying we shouldn't have any cuts," Genshaft said. "We just don't want anything to be disproportionate."
Behind the scenes, Sen. Jim Norman, R-Tampa, drafted an amendment to Alexander's budget plan that he says will ensure USF gets "certainty" that it will be treated fairly.
Norman wants to reduce USF's total budget cut from $78 million to something more on par with cuts to other similarly sized schools. Earlier in the day, he said the final cut should be closer to $45 million but later said he was still hammering out the exact amount. Norman's amendment would also seek to add back $18 million so USF could absorb USF Poly's faculty and staff and $6 million to maintain the pharmacy school. That funding currently is in the budget for USF Polytechnic.
All told, proposed cuts to the university system total $400 million, with USF, the University of Central Florida, Florida Atlantic University and Florida International University taking the biggest hits.
Alexander and Senate leaders say they doled out the cuts according to universities' available reserves. USF, they say, is sitting on nearly $100 million.
While USF does not have the largest amount of reserves, university leaders say they are facing the biggest potential cut — mainly because of the costs associated with transitioning USF Poly into the new Florida Polytechnic University.
At a news conference Monday night at Tampa International Airport, Genshaft said that "this is a marathon, not a sprint" and that USF still needs all the support it can get.
Norman said he plans to have his amendment filed by this afternoon in advance of Thursday's Senate's session, where members will take up the budget. The first-term senator and former Hillsborough County commissioner says he's working to have other senators sign onto the measure.
Times staff writer Elizabeth Leva contributed to this report. Kim Wilmath can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.