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Senate to weigh in on USF Poly's future Thursday

TALLAHASSEE — While debate surrounding the University of South Florida's budget has gotten most of the attention in the Legislature recently, there's another big decision coming today: JD Alexander's over-arching vision to create the state's 12th university.

The Senate is expected to vote on a series of budget bills, including one that would immediately create Florida Polytechnic University out of USF's Polytechnic campus. USF has not formally opposed the measure and senators have signaled scant resistance to the plan.

A few weeks ago, it seemed Alexander's dream of an independent university in Lakeland would have to wait several years. Now it could happen as soon as summer, Alexander says.

He's pushing ahead even as students, faculty and Gov. Rick Scott — who can veto the proposal — question his wisdom. The House must also agree.

"We have a process already in place with the Board of Governors to work with the Polytech," Scott said Wednesday. "Unless somebody convinces me otherwise, that's the way we've got to look at it. … No one has shown me (an immediate split) is a better process."

Alexander said he believes he can change Scott's mind.

"If we come up with a fairer, firmer way to get there," Alexander said, "I would expect that it would be something he could support. But we'll see."

Alexander envisions the new university opening its doors in six months to a year.

That would require expedited work from the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools — to accredit USF Poly first as a separate campus of USF, and then give the campus accreditation as a stand-alone institution.

Typically, gaining SACS accreditation takes three to five years. But Alexander says he received assurances from SACS that the school could become separately accredited by July, and accredited as an independent institution another six months to a year after that. Representatives from SACS did not return calls Wednesday.

Once the school is separately accredited, Alexander said, his hope is to have a separate, non-USF campus board overseeing the Polytechnic. Members of that board would be appointed by Scott and the Board of Governors, Alexander said.

The question of Polytechnic's independence was supposed to have been resolved in November, when the Board of Governors laid out a plan for a split that USF agreed to.

The board, which sets policy for the state university system, decided to let the branch campus break away only after it gained accreditation, increased its enrollment and built at least two of the buildings on the greenfield site of its new campus in Lakeland, among other benchmarks. It was expected to take several years.

Alexander insists that breaking the campus off right away makes more sense.

The Senate also will consider university system budget cuts today that would impact USF more than any other school. Some see the cuts as unfairly targeting USF because of the Polytechnic drama.

Sen. Jim Norman, R-Tampa, filed three amendments to restore some of USF's funding. He has six other senators on board.

"There's going to be a fight," Norman said. "It's a showdown until we're reimbursed for what I believe is necessary for my community and for USF. It's going to be a showdown until I see the money."

Norman's amendments would restore about $55 million, including funds for USF's pharmacy school, money to absorb USF Poly's faculty and staff and about $33 million extra that would make the cut to USF more comparable to similar institutions.

Rather than the $78 million cut Alexander proposed, USF's Tampa campus would be cut about $45.5 million, and each of its three branch campuses in St. Petersburg, Sarasota-Manatee and the Polytechnic in Lakeland, would receive cuts of about $2 million.

That leaves the cut to the main university at about 26 percent and each of the smaller branches about 10 percent. That, Norman says, is fair. It leaves USF Tampa with a cut closer to what the University of Florida and Florida State University received, and the smaller campuses with cuts equal to the smallest school in the university system, New College.

The funds would come from a pot of money set aside for approved, yet unfinished, construction projects across the university system.

Alexander, R-Lake Wales, has not said whether he supports or opposes that alternative scenario.

Kim Wilmath can be reached at kwilmath@tampabay.com.

Senate to weigh in on USF Poly's future Thursday 02/22/12 [Last modified: Wednesday, February 22, 2012 11:04pm]
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