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With new leader in place, USF St. Petersburg ponders its future

Students make their way along the University of South Florida St. Petersburg campus on Thursday.

CHRIS ZUPPA | Times

Students make their way along the University of South Florida St. Petersburg campus on Thursday.

The highest office at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg has been open since the chancellor resigned last summer, so the spare desk and walls don't offer many insights, and anyway, Norine Noonan is pointing out the window.

Noonan, the vice chancellor for academic affairs, is looking to the peninsula that juts into Bayboro Harbor, where the campus used to be located when it opened in 1965. But also in her view is a young man who appears to be a student, standing on the sea wall, shaking his fist at the sky.

The campus police stop to check on him, then move on. He's singing, using his hand as a makeshift microphone.

It is a small moment that makes a bigger point about the small, evolving campus by the bay: students are finding other reasons besides classes to hang around.

• • •

If you don't know much about the only public university in Pinellas County, that's okay: USF St. Petersburg is still figuring itself out, too.

But the university is in a unique position to carve out its niche within the next few years. Last week, Sophia Wisniewska, the current head of Penn State Brandywine, was named the school's new chancellor. She'll create a five-year strategic plan, forcing the university to answer sticky questions about its size and purpose.

Although founded in 1965, USF St. Petersburg is in many respects even younger. The school didn't enroll freshmen and sophomores until decades later, wasn't separately accredited until 2006, and didn't have students living on campus until the first residence hall opened that same year.

Residence halls changed the game completely, notes Frank Biafora, dean of the college of arts and sciences. "All of a sudden you have undergraduate kids rolling out of bed and coming to class," he says.

Students created clubs, honor societies and, yes, belted out songs into the harbor.

That's something of a coup for a university that was originally created as an overflow campus for Tampa. St. Petersburg gained branch campus status in 1969, but couldn't admit freshmen and sophomores until 2000, just before Florida lawmakers officially made USF St. Petersburg its own university.

In 2006, the Southern Association of College and Schools awarded the university separate accreditation within the USF system. When the school was re-accredited in 2011, everyone exhaled.

"It feels to me now that we finally have our ducks in a row, that now we have more stability where we can figure out who we're going to be," says Susan Allen, a professor of social work and president of the USF St. Petersburg Faculty Senate.

The main questions seem to be how large USF St. Petersburg wants to grow, and what kind of reputation it wants to have. Just over 4,000 undergraduate students call St. Petersburg their home campus in the USF system, and nearly 1,000 more take some classes at St. Pete.

"There is a big decision coming," says Interim Chancellor Bill Hogarth, who has led the university since the summer. "Some people want it to be 25,000. The students hate (that idea), and I think it's a big mistake."

Allen says the school's size is "intimate," allowing professors to know students by name.

Smart, capable students who are on the shy side do well there, Noonan says.

The average high school grade-point average for USF St. Petersburg's freshman class is a healthy 3.6. Still, faculty and staff acknowledge it's not a first choice for many prospective students. But it could be.

"In some ways, people have said, we could very quickly be recognized as a public Ivy," Biafora says. "We have that potential, as a smaller type of institution."

USF St. Petersburg has added five undergraduate majors and three graduate programs in the last four years. Biology was added just this fall and became the most popular major when 450 students declared. These students have more opportunities to participate in faculty research than those at larger universities, faculty and staff say.

Biafora believes the school's reputation will grow as more students graduate and enter the Pinellas job market: "I truly believe our students will stand out in every single hiring pool."

• • •

There is more to it than that. The university can dream up new programs and majors but there needs to be funding, says Noonan. "I'd like to see the commitment from the state of Florida to higher education."

Progress takes resources. To hire J. Michael Francis, a history professor whose expertise has brought national attention to the university's Florida Studies program, USF St. Petersburg secured a private donation. But they'll need more, and that means being visible in the community.

When the Martin Luther King, Jr. Parade wound its way through downtown St. Petersburg recently, Noonan remembers that most of the floats were very structured, with people marching in straight lines ahead of them.

The USF St. Petersburg float was flocked by students on brightly-colored skateboards, members of the university's new Longboarding Club. The way they wove in and out of crowds made Noonan think of Alexander Calder, a sculptor known for hanging metal mobiles that move in all directions. While everyone else was sticking to the parade route, she says, the university was in motion.

Times staff writer Stephanie Hayes and researcher Carolyn Edds contributed to this report. Contact Lisa Gartner at lgartner@tampabay.com.

With new leader in place, USF St. Petersburg ponders its future 03/23/13 [Last modified: Saturday, March 23, 2013 9:03pm]
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