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USF Poly's bid for independence gets its first test

TAMPA — To split or not to split?

Specifically, should the University of South Florida's branch campus in Lakeland become the state's 12th public university?

That's the big decision now in the hands of the Florida Board of Governors, which meets today in Boca Raton. And it's a choice wrought with political land mines, mostly because of who's taking sides.

For months, the idea has been pushed by J.D. Alexander, the powerful senator from Polk County who holds the purse strings to the state budget.

But it's opposed by students, faculty, and some prominent local and state leaders. USF leaders have poked dozens of holes in the secession plan, and two state senators have called for an audit into questionable spending by the campus' leader, Marshall Goodman.

Now it's before the Board of Governors, which oversees an increasingly cash-strapped state university system.

USF students opposed to the split are being hauled over by the busload to Florida Atlantic University and board staff have prepared for an overflow crowd.

Expect explosions.

What is happening today?

Goodman will present USF Poly's ambitious 50-plus-page secession plan released last month. At the request of the board, USF's administration reviewed the plan and outlined almost three dozen concerns, including that it overestimates its potential growth. Goodman stood by the numbers, which say the school will grow from 1,300 students to 16,000 in 15 years.

Today, the board could vote to split the campus off, keep it part of USF, or delay a decision.

Where do board members stand?

After hearing about the idea for the first time from Alexander and Goodman in September, several members asked about the feasibility and told Goodman to return with more details.

Since then, one board member, John Temple, has said he opposes the split. Another, John Rood, is also on the board for Sen. Alexander's land management company and said he would recuse himself from a vote if that Alico alliance created a conflict of interest.

Why is USF Poly seeking independence?

Goodman and Alexander say the campus can answer the call from Gov. Rick Scott to prepare more students for technology-driven jobs, but as a part of USF has to wait in line with the rest of the system and often gets the short end of the stick. They point specifically to funding new projects and adding new degree programs.

However, last year USF Poly's $35 million appropriation for its new campus was the only construction project in the state university system to escape the governor's veto. And the campus has still not implemented the 15 degree programs USF granted it in the past two years, USF says.

How much will independence cost?

In its business plan, USF Poly asserts splitting off would cost nothing, then pages later says only the first phase would be cost-free. Starting in 2017, the plan says, the campus would need more than $222 million. That doesn't take into account the cost of the school's new $100 million campus being designed by a famous Spanish architect.

USF Poly already has paid thousands to a Lakeland-based law firm for issues related to independence. One example: nearly $11,000 after members of the firm attended the September board meeting. None spoke.

What does USF president Judy Genshaft want?

She has not explicitly said, but may do so at today's meeting. She has in the past said repeatedly that the USF system works, and in a letter to the board last week, she urged members to decide one way or another to avoid risking USF's overall accreditation while the branch campus' future is in limbo. The USF Board of Trustees was stronger, saying if the split is approved, USF should recoup the investment it has made in the campus.

What about the students?

USF Poly says students set to graduate by summer 2013 would have the option to transfer to another USF institution. However, USF says many of those students may not meet the other campus' admission standards.

What exactly is a polytechnic, anyway?

The word means "skilled in many arts," and USF Poly says it defines its focus on applied learning vs. traditional liberal-arts heavy models at other universities. The school wants to emphasize fields in science, engineering, technology and math. Goodman touts USF Poly as the state's first polytechnic university.

What happens if the board approves the split?

USF Poly would need to secure separate accreditation, which has been put on hold pending the split decision. The Florida Legislature would decide whether to create a new public university, and if so, figure out how to fund it in light of a projected $2 billion budget shortfall.

What if the board delays a vote?

It meets next in mid January, but by then five of the current board members will be gone, their terms expiring days earlier. And five newcomers will weigh in instead.

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

How USF Poly got here

2002: USF Lakeland sets out to find site for new campus

2003: 530 acres off Interstate 4 donated to USF

2006: Marshall Goodman becomes chancellor of USF Lakeland

2008: USF Lakeland changes its name to USF Polytechnic and sets a new mission for applied learning in science, technology, engineering and math

June 2009: Goodman hires Santiago Calatrava to design new campus

December 2009: Goodman and Genshaft meet with Sens. Jeff Atwater and J.D. Alexander to go over master plan with Calatrava

March 2010: Goodman, Genshaft and USF Poly board chairman Gene Engle travel to Tallahassee to promote the "importance and value of a new USF poly campus"

May 2011: USF Poly gets $35 million for construction dollars, the only university project not vetoed by the governor

July 2011: About 30 Polk County leaders spark the call for independence with a letter to Board of Governors chairwoman Ava Parker. Alexander began publicly pushing the cause.

September 2011: Goodman gives a presentation to the Board of Governors lauding the polytechnic mission; board members ask for more details

October 2011: Sens. Paula Dockery and Mike Fasano call for an audit of Goodman's expenditures. Goodman releases a more detailed business plan, and USF's administration picks it apart

November 2011: Lakeland city commissioners vote to suspend its $5 million gift to USF Polytechnic pending the decision on the school's future.

For a split

Sen. J.D Alexander; USF Poly chancellor Marshall Goodman; the Polk County Board of Commissioners; the Central Florida Development Council, the Lakeland Area Chamber of Commerce, the Polk County Builders Association; and the nearly 20 letter signers, including Publix Supermarkets vice chairman Barney Barnett, Comcar Industries president Mark Bostick, Lake Wales citrus corporation president Victor Story, real estate investor Brian Philpot, Saddle Creek Corporation chairman David Lyons, and Lakeland Economic Development Council director Steve Scruggs

Against a split, or in favor of more study

USF Poly faculty senate; USF's faculty union; USF's alumni association; USF's student government; Sens. Paula Dockery (R-Lakeland), Mike Fasano (R-New Port Richey), and Betty Reed (D-Tampa); Chairman of USF Poly's board and USF trustee Gene Engle; Former Board of Governors vice chair John Dasburg; Board of Governors member John Temple; the Florida Council of 100; former USF Lakeland chancellor Preston Mercer; Winter Haven lawyer and former state legislator Rick Dantzler, who was an original signer of the first letter calling for independence but has since changed his mind; and 214 Polk County residents who signed another letter asking the board to delay a vote for at least a year, including USF Poly alum David Touchton, a CPA who is on the Central Florida Development Council, former Lakeland mayor and current school board member Frank O'Reilly, former Lakeland city commissioner A. Dean Boring and former Saddle Creek president Bruce Abels

USF Poly's bid for independence gets its first test 11/08/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, November 8, 2011 11:05pm]
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