Thursday, November 23, 2017
Education

Reaction mixed on bill to make Florida Polytechnic state's 12th university

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TALLAHASSEE — Not only does a surprise bill to create "Florida Polytechnic" not match a plan already laid out by state university system leaders, but it flies in the face of the Board of Governors' central mission: to oversee the system without outside influence from legislators.

That's the view of Board of Governors member John Temple, the only one of the 17-member board to speak publicly Thursday about the bill after it was slipped into the Senate higher education appropriations committee's budget proposal Wednesday.

"This is just wrong," Temple said. "This needs to stop."

The bill would allow the University of South Florida Polytechnic to immediately break away from USF to become Florida Polytechnic — before meeting benchmarks laid out in November by the Board of Governors that were expected to take several years. Temple was one of three voting against the move.

"First of all, this is not the appropriate time to even consider a new university," Temple said. "Secondly, this (new bill) is not what the Board of Governors passed."

What the rest of the board thinks is still a mystery. But some answers may come next week.

Sen. Steve Oelrich, R-Gainesville, who questioned the reasons for the bill when it showed up in the committee's budget materials, said Thursday that he will ask State University System Chancellor Frank Brogan to weigh in. Oelrich said he plans to invite Brogan to the higher education committee he chairs next Friday.

Oelrich said he wants to know the Board of Governors' feelings on the bill, whether USF Poly has met any of those guidelines the board already set up, and whether Brogan thinks Florida is ready for its next university.

Board spokeswoman Kelly Layman said "the Board of Governors and state universities are always pleased for any and every opportunity to discuss the importance of higher education issues in Florida with members of the Legislature."

Layman said board leaders were still reviewing the bill as of late Thursday.

Bringing Florida Polytechnic to life is a priority for the Senate's budget chairman, JD Alexander. The Lake Wales Republican has been pushing the idea since the summer, and said this bill will ensure that happens.

"The proposal put forward by the committee this week, I believe, gives a straightforward, succinct, certain future to the institution to fulfill the mission that the Board of Governors has approved," Alexander said.

It was necessary for the Senate to get involved, Alexander said, because "I have no confidence in the stewardship of USF."

USF president Judy Genshaft has not commented on the bill. A USF spokesman said, "USF is absolutely committed to accomplishing the BOG mandate, which leads to independence."

Genshaft initially wanted to keep her system together, but after the board vote, she pledged cooperation with the plan.

The process had a rocky start, with Genshaft catching heat from board members after removing USF Poly's embattled leader and temporarily replacing him with a Lakeland lawyer who warned against rushing the campus' secession.

But the issues appeared to be smoothed out when the Board of Governors met last month. Members praised Genshaft for her improved collaboration, and she announced that a search had begun for a leader of the new university.

That search would end under the new budget language, said Sen. Evelyn Lynn, who introduced the bill as chair of the higher education appropriations committee. "What they're doing, I guess, would cease," Lynn said.

Lynn, R-Ormond Beach, says the bill is an affirmation of what the Board of Governors decided.

"It's pretty much exactly what they were talking about," Lynn said, "except they stretched it out a little longer."

The bill will now be considered as part of the overall budget by the Senate budget committee, which Alexander chairs.

If the bill makes it into the Legislature's final budget and is signed by Gov. Rick Scott, it will be up to Scott to put together a Board of Trustees for the new university. That board will choose a president and hire faculty with funds previously allocated to USF Poly.

On Thursday, Scott wasn't ready to take a stance.

"I haven't seen the bill myself," he said.

House Speaker Dean Cannon said he and his fellow members will look at the bill if it comes up on their side. "If that's a priority of the Senate's," he said, "we'll give it the same consideration that we hope they'll give our priorities in the budget process."

But Cannon also said he thinks the drive to make USF Poly independent is an example of the parochialism he discouraged on the opening day.

"It is symptomatic of the parochialism that has, in the past, I think, either prevented or occurred in the absence of a broad system of governance," said Cannon. "I don't want the parochialism to distract us from the greater goal, which is what kind of system do we want to have? Do we want to have a world-class university system?"

Times/Herald staff writers Steve Bousquet and Bill Varian contributed to this report.

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