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USF Lakeland campus faces challenges in breaking away

To split or not to split?

That's the big question swirling around Florida's higher education world — specifically, should the University of South Florida Polytechnic campus in Lakeland become the state's 12th public university?

That question raises a whole lot more, like when could this happen? How much will this cost? What about accreditation? Will students want to go there?

Some have clear answers. Others, not so much. Here are some highlights:

What must happen to make USF Polytechnic an independent university?

First, the Board of Governors, which oversees Florida's public universities, would have to sign off on the idea.

Next, the proposal would need support in Tallahassee. That's where Florida's public universities get funding, through Public Education Capital Outlay, or PECO, dollars for construction projects and state appropriations, in addition to tuition money, private donations and federal programs.

How much will it cost to develop the campus into an independent entity?

A total figure is difficult to pinpoint. But USF Poly already has a head start on money for a new campus, getting a $35 million boost in PECO dollars the last legislative session and $31.8 million more in the five years before that. According to the project's 10-year plan, the whole thing is expected to cost more than $200 million.

What about the services it currently shares with the USF system?

As a regional campus, the school is independent in governance but takes advantage of a bevy of shared resources, including legal services, library services, a computer network, admissions, athletic programs, registrar and research dollars.

That setup "saves the state money," Judy Genshaft, USF's president, said last week in her annual fall address. And "it provides greater access to students."

USF is examining the total value of all the shared services and expects to finish the study next year. For its part, USF Poly gave the Tampa campus almost $1 million for shared services last year, according to USF's outline of that study. The Tampa campus contributed $38 million.

Would the new school be accredited? Why is that important?

Without accreditation, students can't get federal grants or loans, nor are their course credits recognized by other institutions. Right now, the Lakeland campus is covered under the umbrella of USF's long-standing accreditation with the Southern Accreditation of Colleges and Schools, or SACS.

USF Poly has applied for separate accreditation — as both USF St. Petersburg and USF Sarasota-Manatee have earned — but approval could take more than a year. And if it were to split, said Tom Benberg, SACS vice president and chief of staff, the Lakeland school would either have to resubmit its accreditation application or significantly modify the one it sent while it was affiliated with USF.

SACS is waiting to hear from the school's leaders about what they intend to do before offering any guidance.

Why are supporters pushing for independence?

They say it is necessary to ensure more local control and that it would be easier to garner private donations if the school could solicit them on its own, away from the larger USF institution. In addition, it could more aggressively seek PECO dollars from the Legislature and new degree program approvals with its own board of trustees working with the Board of Governors.

"It's going to be successful no matter what," said Brian Philpot, a real estate investor and one of 29 Polk County business and civic leaders who signed a letter sent to the Board of Governors, pushing for a split. "But it would make more sense for it to have its own foundation — plot its own course without having to deal with such bureaucracy and not having to share the wealth."

When could all this happen?

On Thursday, the Board of Governors will meet in Miami and hear a presentation on USF Poly's "potential future." However, no vote will be taken. Marshall Goodman, USF Polytechnic regional chancellor, told members of the campus board that some action could happen as early as November when the Board of Governors meets again.

Reach Kim Wilmath at kwilmath@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3337.

USF Lakeland campus faces challenges in breaking away 09/10/11 [Last modified: Saturday, September 10, 2011 9:08pm]
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