TAMPA — After a half-hour presentation about the good things the University of South Florida has been able to accomplish — medical research, science and math degrees, graduation rates, veterans services — there came some tough questions.
The main campus in Tampa was doing great. But what about the other branches?
The grilling was part of an annual exercise by the Board of Governors, which oversees the State University System and asks all public universities in Florida to outline where they stand and what they hope to accomplish over the next year.
The board members noticed differences between USF's three reports — one for the main campus in Tampa, one for USF St. Petersburg and one for USF Sarasota-Manatee.
For example, in 2011-12, USF Tampa had average student SAT scores of 1,777, a freshman retention rate of 87 percent and undergraduate degrees in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) at 24 percent.
At USF St. Petersburg, numbers for the same categories were 1602, 72 percent and 7 percent. Sarasota-Manatee, primarily a transfer school now developing a freshman and sophomore population, did not even have some of the same data.
"There's one thing that's a killer for me," board vice chair Morteza Hosseini told USF president Judy Genshaft.
While the numbers were impressive for USF Tampa, he said, "once you start going to St. Petersburg and Sarasota-Manatee, these numbers just fall apart, from graduation rates to STEM and on and on. Why aren't they the same as Tampa? What can we do to get them to be like Tampa? Someone told me you treat them like a stepchild."
The two campuses are younger and smaller than the main campus, with fewer resources, especially in science and technology. They also have different student populations and goals, Genshaft said.
"The Board of Governors said that these two campuses, USF St. Petersburg and USF Sarasota-Manatee, will be a six-year campus, not a doctoral-degree-granting campus," she said. "These two campuses fulfilled exactly what was asked of them."
Some students move from campus to campus, said USF provost Ralph Wilcox, and that can mess with graduation figures.
"Please understand that we only have one College of Engineering across the entire USF system and that is on the Tampa campus," he said. "Something that isn't altogether obvious in graduation rates is, we have many students that start as freshman in St. Pete and transfer to the Tampa campus to pursue majors that aren't currently offered, nor would we want to offer duplicate programs that aren't cost-effective."
Board members also took issue with statements used to describe visions and strategies at the branch campuses.
At USF Sarasota-Manatee, a statement says the school strives to be a "hometown comprehensive university with ever-increasing national and global impact." Another statement at USF St. Petersburg says the school hopes to be the "masters comprehensive university of choice in the Tampa Bay region and beyond."
Said board member Norman Tripp: "I'm not sure what that means. … I think you need to get your hands around what's going on." He urged Genshaft to devise a work plan with "a clear path" for all three campuses.
By its next meeting, the board asked to see more specific plans to improve the branch campuses. Genshaft agreed.
"We also have a new head of the USF St. Petersburg campus," she added, referring to incoming chancellor Sophia Wisniewska. "She's starting July 1, and I know that she wants to go through a strategic planning process. I think this will all change."
Stephanie Hayes can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3394.