TAMPA — Forge ahead, and be wary of distractions. That was the message University of South Florida faculty members heard Thursday afternoon as they were welcomed back to campus for the new semester.
Amid talk of the school's booming research, academic success and challenges ahead, there was one big distraction faculty didn't hear about at the annual fall address. That would be the recent call to make one of it campuses — USF Polytechnic in Lakeland — an independent university.
After the meeting, USF president Judy Genshaft told the St. Petersburg Times that the strength of the USF system lies in its ability to deliver degrees across various regions, she said. That's what makes USF such a successful economic engine. But, "to me, everybody needs to work together in a cost-effective way."
USF's branch campuses, including USF St. Petersburg and USF Sarasota-Manatee in addition to USF Polytechnic, govern themselves. But under the USF umbrella, they share a vast amount of resources.
Genshaft pointed to one example, the school's computer network, which she characterized as a "huge cost."
If certain arms of USF's system want to break away, they'd no longer have access to that benefit — not to mention USF's legal counsel, marketing, athletic programs, the library system, registrar and admissions offices and research dollars.
"This is a time when we need to be good stewards of taxpayer dollars," Genshaft said, reiterating the message delivered to the faculty moments earlier by USF provost Ralph Wilcox. "We have to do what's in the best interest of the students."
Then Genshaft added, "I don't look at distractions."
The USF Polytechnic issue is sure to heat up next month, when the Florida Board of Governors discusses it at its next meeting.
The board, which oversees the public university system, asked Genshaft to send a USF representative to the September meeting to make a presentation about the branch campus's potential future.
Calls for its independence were stirred up last month by J.D. Alexander, the state Senate's powerful budget chairman from Lake Wales, who helped secure $35 million for the campus's new building. Alexander's sentiments were echoed by dozens of Polk County leaders in a letter sent to the Board of Governors chairwoman.
This week, news broke that another senator, Sen. Mike Bennett, R-Bradenton, would be open to his region's USF branch separating from the whole, too.
But in a phone interview Thursday, Bennett said his comments were "blown out of proportion," and he was merely responding to questions about whether he would explore such a possibility. Bennett said he would, but only if the community or university leaders asked him to.
He said so far, none have.
Reach Kim Wilmath at firstname.lastname@example.org or 813-226-3337.