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Tensions continue in USF Poly independence debate

State Sen. J.D. Alexander stood to the side of the room Thursday, watching as University of South Florida president Judy Genshaft spoke to faculty at her embattled Lakeland campus.

Just a day earlier, Alexander had publicly lashed out at Genshaft's leadership in a scathing letter to the Florida Board of Governors, which oversees the state university system. Now he was making a surprise visit to a meeting Genshaft called with USF Polytechnic faculty.

Those there said Alexander remained silent the whole time — his presence speaking volumes.

It further evidenced the simmering tension between the two sides in the USF Poly-split debate: Genshaft, who says she's working toward benchmarks laid out by state higher education leaders for the campus' eventual independence; and Alexander, who has hinted that if USF doesn't play ball, he'll find another institution to sponsor the Lakeland school's separation.

Alexander, R-Lake Wales, didn't mention that idea in his letter to the Board of Governors. Instead, he blasted Genshaft for what he deemed "misleading" statements and questionable actions, including her acceptance of a $1 million gift from the contractor of the new USF Poly campus.

The Board of Governors said that it has received Alexander's letter and one from Genshaft, and that they are reviewing both.

When asked Thursday by the St. Petersburg Times about Alexander's claims, a USF spokeswoman gave these explanations:

• A $1 million gift from construction contractor Skanska, to be used at USF's discretion over 10 years, was given after the company had already won a public bid for the USF Poly campus, said Lara Wade-Martinez. Skanska was not promised anything in return for its donation. And it has actually been denied some other USF bids since then. The Times requested copies of those bid contracts, but USF was unable to provide them by Thursday night. Jessica Murray, a spokeswoman for Skanska, said it's not unusual for it to make donations to college campuses, which typically range from $1,000 to that $1 million gift on the high end of the scale.

• Genshaft signed off on contracts hiring famous architect Santiago Calatrava for the new campus, as she does for any contract over a certain dollar amount. But details of those agreements were left up to USF Poly staff. Still, even though the pricey plan has raised eyebrows, Genshaft has never criticized it.

• A trip to Switzerland to review Calatrava's plans for the new site was paid for by Genshaft personally. As for the other two trips to see him in New York, one to see him specifically was paid for with USF dollars, about $300, Wade-Martinez said. The other was tacked on to a trip Genshaft took for a meeting with USF's sports conference.

Wade-Martinez assured that USF is "dedicated to transparency."

She said the school's focus is meeting the conditions spelled out by the Board of Governors last week, when it voted to essentially delay Alexander's push to make USF Poly independent.

Genshaft's meeting with USF Poly faculty members on Thursday was just one step toward that goal, Wade-Martinez said. "She wants them to feel like they can communicate."

They apparently haven't felt that way for months, as the debate about splitting off their campus has raged on.

In a survey sent to the Board of Governors in advance of the big meeting last week, a majority of them said they did not support a split, nor were they even consulted about their feelings. A student survey had similar results.

"I think people need to realize that the faculty and students do make up a university," said Sherry Kragler, acting president of USF Poly's Faculty Senate, "and their voices have to be heard."

In response to that idea, the school's Faculty Senate took two votes Thursday in a meeting after the gathering with Genshaft.

First, to officially acknowledge they have "no confidence" in USF Poly chancellor Marshall Goodman, who pushed Alexander's vision to break away, despite the surveys. And second, to declare confidence in Genshaft.

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

Tensions continue in USF Poly independence debate 11/17/11 [Last modified: Thursday, November 17, 2011 11:09pm]
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