Sunday, May 27, 2018
Education

Senate votes to split off USF Polytechnic, creating 12th university

TALLAHASSEE — While the University of South Florida declared victory Thursday after the Senate significantly reduced its much-disputed budget cuts, Sen. JD Alexander celebrated approval of his plan to immediately make USF's Polytechnic campus the state's 12th university.

Approval came as part of Senate votes on the budget, but the issues still require endorsements by the House and Gov. Rick Scott.

For USF and Alexander, though, the day marked an end to a war that has dragged on for months.

"A lot of positive progress has been made," USF president Judy Genshaft said.

Instead of losing $78 million in funding, USF's Tampa campus budget would be cut $45 million, with its other campuses each taking cuts of about $1 million to $2 million.

And instead of losing $6 million for its pharmacy program, USF will receive $3 million.

For costs associated with absorbing USF Poly faculty and staff, USF will get $10 million. It has said it needs $16 million, but under a new provision USF Poly will have to cover any costs that exceed $10 million.

The budget cut issue was expected to spark a showdown Thursday on the Senate floor, but behind-the-scenes negotiations late Wednesday night meant much of the contention was ironed out by the time senators took it up.

Leading the charge was Sen. Jim Norman, R-Tampa, who filed several amendments that gave USF a more proportionate cut.

He said after the vote, "You couldn't wipe the grin off my face."

"Whatever happens with this USF Poly thing," Norman said, "USF is out of play as a bargaining chip."

Many saw USF's original budget cuts, which hit the school harder than any other state university, as vindictiveness by Alexander. As the loudest voice pushing for USF Poly to become independent, Alexander repeatedly criticized USF for not making that quest happen fast enough.

He took up that cry again Thursday in a lengthy, impassioned speech urging fellow senators to vote for the bill to split USF Poly.

Slipped quietly into the budget a few weeks ago, the measure would shortcut a path to the school's independence that was laid out by the Florida Board of Governors in November. The board, which oversees the state university system, wanted USF Poly to meet a list of benchmarks before breaking off, including accreditation and increased enrollment.

Alexander said a split should happen now.

"At the end of the day, we've got a divorce," Alexander said. "Do we keep making everybody live in the same house? This basically says, we're going to move on."

He got his way with a 35-4 vote. But the few dissenters did not go quietly.

Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, was skeptical of Alexander's claims that the new university would cost little to no extra money.

"It's easy for all of us, as exiting senators, to vote on something that we're going to leave the tab, the invoice, the bill for future legislators and taxpayers for years to come," he said. Fasano and Alexander are both being termed out of the Senate this session.

Sen. Paula Dockery, another exiting Republican senator from Lakeland, held up a picture of USF Poly's new campus, now just a field of dirt in Lakeland. She said the idea to create a Polytechnic may be a good one, but the rush to split could cause harm to students who hang in limbo. What assurance do they have, she asked, that they will graduate from an accredited institution if the school splits now?

Sen. Steve Oelrich, R-Gainesville, wondered why the Legislature had to weigh in at all, when the Board of Governors already spelled out a game plan. (Along with those three, Sen. Greg Evers, R-Crestview, voted no.)

Then it was Alexander's turn to sound off.

Banging his fist on his desk, raising his voice and growing red in the face, Alexander gave a litany of reasons why USF couldn't be trusted to usher the branch campus to its independent future.

He went back in history, cataloging grievances against USF since the start of his time in the Legislature. All along the way, Alexander said, USF has dragged its feet in giving USF Poly new programs, new faculty members and a new campus while supporting progress in Tampa.

He said if USF Poly hasn't grown to where it needs to be, that's USF's fault.

At times the argument seemed to veer off the rails, like when Alexander recalled the start to his college career at Georgia Tech. Kids there, he said, had calculators on their belts and pocket protectors in their pockets. "A bunch of nerds," he said laughing.

Then he said the current students at USF Poly are more like "University of Florida wannabes," letting out a "Go Gators."

He defended USF Poly's purchase of life-size Star Wars figurines that got the campus' former chancellor in hot water last year, and he ended the speech in a full-on rant against USF president Genshaft.

"I don't enjoy getting into it like this," he said. "I happen to believe very fervently … I think this state needs this sort of focused institution. I hope we put titanium steel rings around it so it is only that, and only that forever."

How does Alexander see his chances of getting his vision past the House and Gov. Rick Scott, the next hurdles?

"I've got a pretty good batting record," he said. "So, we'll see."

Kim Wilmath can be reached at [email protected]

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