Monday, December 18, 2017
Education

Universities fulfill second chunk of Alexander's data request

TAMPA — Florida's universities can produce lengthy essays on deadline.

They proved it Tuesday when they released almost 5,000 pages in response to a massive data request by state Sen. JD Alexander.

Alexander, R-Lake Wales, asked for the information after the Florida Board of Governors voted to delay the University of South Florida Polytechnic's quest to become independent. Alexander had pushed hard for an immediate split.

The information released Tuesday touches on everything from funding cuts to pay raises, executive travel to donations.

But the answers aren't as direct as the questions.

Take Alexander's request for a list of vendors who have donated money to Florida's 11 public universities. The schools provide lists of vendors, and they provide lists of donors. But they leave it up to Alexander to connect the dots, explaining that the business and fundraising operations of the universities are separate functions.

That separation is important "to avoid any appearance of impropriety," USF officials said in their response.

A few months ago, Alexander raised questions about a donation made to USF by the contractor of its new USF Poly campus in Lakeland. After winning a $46 million bid, Skanska made a $1 million donation to USF, to be paid over 10 years.

Both USF and Skanska defended the gift, telling the Tampa Bay Times that the campus project contract was the result of an in-depth public bidding process and the donation had nothing to do with it.

Whether that answer, and the slew of others, satisfies Alexander remains to be seen. Next week state university system chancellor Frank Brogan will present them all in person to the Senate budget committee, which Alexander chairs.

Alexander did not return a request for comment Tuesday.

Here is some other information the universities provided:

• Travel by university presidents varies widely, from more than $100,000 in trips by University of Florida president Bernie Machen to just a few thousand dollars' worth by the presidents of smaller schools, like New College and the University of North Florida. The funding sources vary, too, with some trips paid with state dollars but many big excursions paid with university foundation money or private donations.

• Recent state funding reductions led to considerable belt tightening by universities. The measures included suspended or canceled programs, consolidated operations on the campuses and among nearby institutions, and energy savings.

• Pay raises for university employees were minimal, averaging 2 to 3 percent last year. And they came after a year or two of flat pay.

• The state university system is seeking $3.99 billion in the next legislative session, a 14.8 percent increase over last year's appropriation. The two major reasons for the increase are $150 million requested for the board's New Florida initiative, which supports university projects aimed at economic development, and $283 million for a major gift matching program that hasn't been funded in several years.

Kim Wilmath can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3337.

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