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Powerful senator's idea for new university met with open mind

The vision for the University of South Florida Polytechnic to spin off from USF and become an independent university remains a number of steps from reality. But the idea has one major advantage: The man with the plan is Senate budget chairman J.D. Alexander, R-Lake Wales.

"Sen. Alexander is immensely well-regarded in the Senate," said Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, slated to become the next Florida Senate president. "So sure, if J.D. Alexander advances an idea, it's going to be considered seriously."

Alexander, who championed a proposal to build Polytechnic a $35 million new campus during the last legislative session, this week publicly floated his preference for the campus to separate. Meanwhile, a letter from 29 Polk County leaders supporting the idea arrived in the office of Ava Parker, chairwoman of the entity that oversee's Florida's 11 public universities.

The Board of Governors declined to comment, only saying through a spokeswoman that Parker was reviewing it.

So, could this happen? Maybe.

The Lakeland campus already has applied for separate accreditation, as was mandated by a 2010 state law. That's not unusual for the USF system, though; the university's St. Petersburg and Sarasota-Manatee campuses have that designation, and both said in a statement they have no desire to break away.

The arms of USF's system are independent in governing but benefit from shared resources, including leadership, legal and risk management services and a data network — which all carry significant costs.

A new public university would first need to be approved by the Board of Governors, which even before news of Alexander's wishes broke this week, already was exploring whether to expand the system as part of a new strategic plan. The board has said it is not actively planning to add a university — only exploring how it might should the need someday arise.

Alexander's fellow legislators also would have to give their okay. Several of them — specifically citing Alexander's influence — said they'd be open to it.

Gaetz, the incoming Senate president, said he thinks the proposal has merit because of the campus' focus on science, technology and engineering.

"We're not doing nearly what we should do to lash higher education to the realities of the economy," Gaetz said. "Does that mean we need a polytech university that's a standalone? Maybe."

Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, agreed.

"Based on the future growth of Florida and the I-4 corridor and so forth, it makes perfect sense to give the Polytechnic campus independence," he said. "If they don't wake up and start paying a little more attention to the St. Petersburg campus, they might find me working on the same thing over here."

Even Democratic Senator Maria Sachs from Boca Raton said when Alexander speaks, senators listen.

"In order for Florida to really compete globally we need to have an excellent university system," she said. "That's paramount. So you couple that with a statesman like Sen. Alexander, whose family dates back many years in Florida, his idea carries, with me, a lot of legitimacy."

Rep. Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, declined to offer an opinion but said out of respect for Alexander it should be considered.

"I can tell you the people in Polk County feel pretty strongly about it," said Weatherford, the House's speaker designate. "But it's premature to say what the position of the House should be."

Alexander could not be reached for comment.

Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, while acknowledging Alexander has the power to get his idea heard, predicted it would face tough questions.

"USF, in my opinion, has the proper resources and whatever needs there are, they can handle it," he said. "But he (Alexander) is the appropriations chairman. If he pushes it, it will be interesting to see how far it goes."

USF President Judy Genshaft and USF Polytechnic's leaders remained quiet Thursday, with neither party commenting further than the statements they released late Wednesday.

In her statement, Genshaft voiced a commitment to USF's system and touted the institution's $3.7 billion annual economic impact.

USF Polytechnic remained neutral in its comments, thanking the community for support and the USF system for "establishing our vision and investing in the future." The last time the USF system lost one of its campuses was in 2001, when New College of Florida set off on its own. The split was largely credited to the support of then-Senate President John McKay.

The road did have challenges. Some wondered whether the institution, a liberal arts college that then had just 650 students, was large enough to make it alone. Then there was the money — the $1.2 million appropriation to get things rolling was vetoed by then-Gov. Jeb Bush.

But the school managed to restore funding and accepted its first class independent from USF that year.

Kim Wilmath can be reached at kwilmath@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3337.

Powerful senator's idea for new university met with open mind 07/28/11 [Last modified: Friday, July 29, 2011 12:24am]

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