Imagine juggling eggs, on a unicycle, in the rain.
In the past few years, the University of South Florida St. Petersburg has been on that kind of impossibly wild ride.
Driven by political pressure and its own feisty ambition, the once-sleepy school that bridges downtown St. Petersburg and Tampa Bay has reinvented itself. Since 2001, when it set out to earn separate accreditation from the main campus in Tampa, USF St. Petersburg has hired scores of new faculty members, enrolled thousands of students and revamped its academic and administrative structures.
It's been "like living on a perpetual earthquake," said Ray Arsenault, who directs graduate studies at the university's highly regarded Florida Studies Program.
Maybe it was inevitable, then, that a few eggs went splat.
On June 26, higher education accreditors caught the campus by surprise when they put USF St. Petersburg's accreditation status on probation just two years after it earned accreditation. The school fell short on two of 89 standards, and neither dealt with finances or academic quality. But it had been warned about the same shortcomings before and, for reasons that remain unclear, could not resolve them.
University officials are not taking the sanction lightly. But after clearing so many other hurdles in so short a span, there is a quiet confidence that this too shall pass.
"Buildings, programs, people, academic offerings, number of students, everything else — this was a huge transformation, and they've accorded themselves incredibly well," said Peter Betzer, a professor emeritus at the USF College of Marine Science, which sits on the St. Petersburg campus but is not under its umbrella. "They look at themselves and go, '89 standards, 87 passed, 2 dings.' I guess I'd shrug my shoulders, too."
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Opened in 1965, USF St. Petersburg was the first of USF's regional campuses. For years it was viewed as a scenic backwater, serving older, nontraditional students in a setting that felt more like a glorified community college than a vital branch of a burgeoning research power.
Many supporters wanted more. And in 2001, they got it — ready or not.
After then-state Sen. Don Sullivan, R-St. Petersburg, took a serious but unsuccessful stab at making the campus wholly independent, USF St. Petersburg settled on winning separate accreditation.
Supporters say that status gives them the best of both worlds: close ties to a big-name research institution, but enough independence to control their own budget, faculty, and goals.
For the most part, supporters say, the school is becoming the liberal arts college it wants to be: vibrant, urban, intimate, special.
"We've always been a hybrid institution, and we've gloried in that," said Arsenault, who arrived at the university in 1980. "We did not want to be typecast as strictly speaking a teaching institution. Our model, I think, was more Williams College or Amherst, the so-called Potted Ivies."
Change is obvious in the numbers.
USF St. Petersburg had 3,995 students in 2001. It has 5,300 now. The faculty has grown from 93 members to 159 over the same period.
In 2003 alone, it hired 75 new faculty and administrative staff members.
Meanwhile, the university has poured $51 million into construction in the past five years, including a seven-story parking garage, a Barnes & Noble bookstore and a 95-suite residence hall that lures younger, more traditional students. Last month, it broke ground on a 35,000-square-foot science and technology building.
But with rapid change has come anxiety and tension.
In line with separate accreditation, the school set up a new administrative structure in 2003. In the time since, two of five founding deans and all three original vice chancellors have been replaced.
"A lot of these people were brought in from the outside," said Darryl Paulson, a professor of government at USF-St. Petersburg. "I think they would have been better off if they retained some of their institutional knowledge."
Turf battles with Tampa continue to crop up, most recently over control over the regional campus library. And as recently as last year, supporters again aired fears that administrators in Tampa were undermining them.
"It's hard to operate a large, multicampus system," said Gary Mormino, an acclaimed USF history professor who relocated to the St. Petersburg campus after 25 years in Tampa. "Here we have what appears to be an autonomous structure in St. Petersburg, but you still have issues that demand intercampus operation."
Karen White, regional chancellor for USF St. Petersburg, said some may second-guess some of the university's decisions. But the bottom line over the past decade is extraordinary progress, she said.
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Officials with the accrediting agency, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, concluded USF St. Petersburg failed to comply with two standards that involve measuring student progress. One deals with assessing the academic skill of general education students, in areas like writing and critical thinking. The other involves tracking student success after graduation.
The concerns were not new. The agency raised them when it initially accredited the school in June 2006, and again in December when it put the university on warning status.
University officials said the agency has yet to share details of its most recent findings with them, but that answers could come as soon as Monday.
Supporters suggest probation is not unusual for newly accredited institutions, an opinion an agency official didn't share.
"While we do not keep a running score on this matter, my impression is that only occasionally are newly accredited institutions sanctioned," vice president Tom Benberg wrote in an e-mail.
Supporters don't like the black eye. But they expect it will be treated and healed.
Changing so much so fast at USF St. Petersburg could have been "the nightmare of the millennium," said Betzer, who also heads the St. Petersburg Downtown Partnership. Instead, "this might represent the single greatest transformation that's ever occurred in an academic setting."
Ron Matus can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8873.