Monday, November 20, 2017
Education

University of Tampa braces for challenges and opportunities of Republican National Convention

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TAMPA — The first day of fall classes at the University of Tampa is Aug. 27 — which also happens to be the first day of the Republican National Convention just across the Hillsborough River.

Another school might see the convention's congestion and potential chaos as reason enough to suspend classes and send everyone home for a week.

That's what Tampa Preparatory School, just north of UT, will do.

But after long talks and lots of planning, UT administrators decided to stay open and make it work, embracing the convention as more opportunity than headache.

"This is just a superlative educational experience for college folks to have," said Linda Devine, vice president for operations and planning. "Our students come from all over the country and all around the globe, and (during the convention) we think this will be a pretty spectacular place to be."

Nor is UT the only institution of higher learning gearing up for the convention. Hillsborough Community College is looking at redeploying administrators and staff to other locations in case convention security forces it to close its administration building on Davis Islands.

HCC expects its Ybor City campus to be outside the security perimeter, though traffic could be tough enough that the college will urge students, faculty and staff to think about alternative transportation plans, like carpooling.

At the University of South Florida, administrators are looking for ways to put their faculty center stage, just as they did for the GOP primary debate in January and 2010's debates in the governor's and senate races.

"With estimates of 15,000 media there, I think we're going to be absolutely besieged by people wanting to talk to experts here," USF spokesman Michael Hoad said.

And all three schools are looking to leverage opportunities to help students land internships with the convention.

But the University of Tampa will be about as close to the action as possible, so it is trying to get students' attention now.

The university has put up a Web page — ut.edu/rnc — with travel and move-in tips for the beginning of the fall semester. It's holding orientation a couple of days early. It is using social media to engage students. And an online video produced by students and alumni includes tips for having an "incident-free RNC."

"Imagine five straight days of Gasparilla," junior McKay Ellis says on the video. "We need everyone to look out for each other."

Administrators also need for returning students to plan their fall arrival now, not in July or August.

The university regularly checks the availability of hotel rooms and airline flights on online travel sites.

"The message is plan early, plan now," UT dean of students Stephanie Russell Holz said.

Some of UT's 6,800 students could arrive as late as the weekend before the convention, but many — incoming freshmen, transfer students, athletes, resident advisers and other student leaders — will arrive at least a full week earlier.

The first-year students will be going through an introduction-to-college course that will include a piece called "RNC 101."

RNC 101 will include convention and relevant political history, but one of its chief goals is to introduce new students to the university's Blackboard technology, which allows faculty members to teach online. That way, if something happens that closes the campus, professors can still conduct classes online.

Because college campuses can be porous, UT is adding security for the convention and will require students, faculty and staff to wear their Spartan IDs on bright green lanyards at all times.

With several spots — Plant Hall, the Vaughn Center, the Crescent Club — mentioned in the convention's official guide to party and event venues, UT could see some visiting groups or delegations. Campus parking is tight even with no convention in town, so administrators were glad to hear that the groups would be coming by charter bus.

UT student government president Nick Chmura said the university has done a good job trying to alert students to the convention's impact.

The question is: Has it sunk in?

"I don't think they understand the magnitude of what's going on and how it will affect them, but at least they know it's happening," said Chmura, 21, a senior studying finance.

UT interim associate provost and professor of psychology Joe Sclafani compares the work to getting ready for a dissertation defense.

"There's a lot of preparation, and it's going to be a big test over a small period of time," he said. "We are doing everything we can to be prepared for that."

Richard Danielson can be reached at d[email protected] or (813) 226-3403.

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