MIAMI — They said it could be like Walt Disney World — an economic powerhouse borne of a dream and a piece of rural Central Florida land.
The same could happen to USF Polytechnic, state university leaders were told at a meeting Thursday. But first, they must set the Lakeland campus free.
The board that oversees Florida's 11 public universities seemed open to a possible split — asking its staff to explore the logistics of separating the branch campus from the University of South Florida.
"To me, this is a fairly small step," said Sen. J.D. Alexander, who is leading the charge to make USF Poly the state's next public university.
Then he promised: "The costs will be very minimal compared to the return for the people of Florida."
He didn't say how.
The discussion was the highlight of the Board of Governors' two-day meeting at Florida International University, culminating months of speculation about the board's stance on creating an independent USF Polytechnic.
Still, there were concerns over the potentially significant costs of developing a new stand-alone university.
With the system already struggling to maintain its existing 11 institutions, some board members wondered: Is this a good time to add another one?
"I've not heard that yet: How do we get more funding for our 11, now (possibly) 12 universities if that's been a problem?" said member Gus Stavros, who has served as president of the University of South Florida Foundation board of trustees. "I've not heard a solution."
Michael Long, the board's only student member, presented a survey taken at USF Polytechnic. Only 15 percent of the little more than 1,000 students responded, but of those, 85 percent said they were against separation. They said they chose the school because of its USF brand name.
And what about the other branch campuses in the state? What makes this one special?
"At the end of the day, it's a lot more fun to be an independent university than part of a system," said Frank Brogan, chancellor of the state university system. "With this particular request, we've got to make sure it is held to such a standard that we are not unintentionally paving the way for what could be an Oklahoma land rush for people coming to say, 'Me too.' "
Alexander, USF Poly chancellor Marshall Goodman, and the other speakers said it's USF Poly's dedication to STEM (science, technology, engineering, math and medicine) programs that necessitates this campus' split.
"This innovative instruction is not found any place in Florida," said state Rep. Kelli Stargel, R-Lakeland.
Mark Kaylor, a Polk County lawyer who spoke in support of separation even though he's part of the USF Poly board that's taken a neutral stance, compared it to "lightning in a bottle."
"Do your due diligence, and tell us you're going to unscrew the cap to let this lightning out," he told the governors.
Alexander, R-Lake Wales, helped secure $35 million in funding for the new campus during the last legislative session. He vowed to remain committed to the school's vision for the duration of his time in the Legislature and beyond.
Board member John Temple seemed frustrated at what he called a "disconnect" between the original intent for USF's Lakeland campus and the proposal now on the table, saying he wanted to hear more about the history of how this independence call came about.
"This started out to be a great land opportunity," Temple said, pointing out the branch campus' many improvements over more than 20 years and its recent shift to the polytechnic mission.
If there was ever a larger plan in that mix, Temple said, he missed it. "I've got to tell you, I'm scratching my head."
The board asked its staff to study an independence transition for USF Polytechnic before its next meeting in November.
Kim Wilmath can be reached at [email protected]