Friday, June 22, 2018

Civic pride, political muscle set stage for USF Polytechnic

By Kim Wilmath

Times Staff Writer

JD Alexander paced the room.

It was Nov. 9, the day the powerful Senate budget chairman would make his pitch to higher education leaders to create a new public university in his home district.

Eventually, a standing-room-only crowd would join Alexander at Florida Atlantic University and listen to a contentious, four-hour debate.

But he was alone that morning, first to arrive. Walking the room, Alexander felt confident.

"I think things are gonna go well," he said.

He was right.

Just four months later ­— barreling past objections from the many who spoke against Alexander's idea that day in November ­and in months to follow — he may be about to get his wish.

All he needs is Gov. Rick Scott's approval.

The story of USF Polytechnic has unfolded as one of civic pride pumped with political muscle. Add to that an ambitious branch campus leader, lots of grievances against the mother ship, and a university president forced to defend a system repeatedly called into question, and you get a powder keg that just exploded.

But the story of Florida's 12th university began long before that November meeting. It began before the Lake Wales Republican publicly introduced the idea last summer. Some would say it has been years in the making.

"Absolutely," Alexander said.

The wheels were set in motion more than a decade ago, through a series of political power plays that put the state university system where it needed to be for Alexander to make his move.

In 2000, then-Gov. Jeb Bush dismantled the body that had governed the university system for 35 years, the Board of Regents — retribution, some said, for denials of lawmakers' pet projects at their alma maters.

Oversight shifted to boards of trustees running each university, followed by a push by then-U.S. Sen. Bob Graham to create the current systemwide Board of Governors. But with the Florida Legislature still holding the purse strings, it hasn't always been clear who's in charge.

Enter Alexander, who put that power structure to the test this year.

Like those state leaders who came before him, Alexander has left his mark on Florida's higher education. And it's more than just a new university.

If there was any question about who has the power over education in this state, Alexander has provided the answer.

Perhaps he knew all along.


USF Lakeland is born with a healthy $12 million in state funding. The intent: to spur job growth after a series of economic blows in the area.

Three hundred master's level students take the campus' first classes at its shared building with Polk Community College.


A newly elected JD Alexander makes his first visit as a Florida representative to the USF Lakeland joint-use campus.

The multimillionaire grandson of citrus magnate Ben Hill Griffin Jr. comes armed with passion for Polk County, which his family helped develop. With land holdings across the county, he has a stake in making sure the area prospers economically.

And he is not pleased.

In Alexander's eyes, he would say later, the campus is not flourishing. It has few full-time faculty members and no undergraduate programs.

He vows to make it better.


About the same time Judy Genshaft, provost at the State University of New York at Albany, is tapped to lead the USF system, a lawmaker poses a threat to split it up.

Sen. Don Sullivan, a Republican from that area, leads a charge to create a new university out of USF St. Petersburg. But Sullivan can't get the support he needs in the House.

Alexander was one of those who voted "no."

"I'm not against a university there in the future," Alexander said then. "I can see the advantage in smaller universities, but the case for doing it now was not proved."

Genshaft pledges to give her branch campuses autonomy — starting with separate accreditation at USF St. Petersburg — while remaining connected to the system. Each campus would hold its own graduation ceremony.

The keynote speaker at the USF Lakeland graduation that year: Alexander.


After serving four years in the House, Alexander is elected to the Florida Senate. He becomes USF Lakeland's cheerleader, and champions expanding the shared USF-Polk Community College facility.

With enrollment growing, USF Lakeland starts planning for a new standalone campus.

"We are going to have us a real university out there," says a delighted Alexander.

After the Williams Acquisition Holding Co., an Oklahoma natural gas company, donates 530 acres it owns in Lakeland to USF, the focus shifts to seeking state dollars to pay for the project.

In a state like Florida, it helps to have the backing of a powerful lawmaker. Alexander commits to making the $200 million project a top priority.

"We have to be creative and work hard and convince the rest of the state that it is important to have these types of programs in Polk County," Alexander told a reporter at the time.


Armed with a speech titled "Dream No Small Dream," a former administrator from San Jose State with a background in political science is tapped to be USF Lakeland's new chancellor.

Marshall Goodman left California after being swept out of his provost post following a failed bid for the university's presidency. It's soon clear he shares Alexander's enthusiasm to build a "destination campus."

"When I see Lakeland, it screams with opportunity," Goodman said then.


As plans for USF Lakeland's new campus begin to take shape, some members of the board that oversees the state's public universities start to have suspicions of the project's intent, based on its grand scope.

A study the year before had noted that the state didn't need more institutions, but should better organize the ones it had.

"That campus didn't seem to make sense to a number of us on the board," John Dasburg, the CEO of ASTAR USA who was the Board of Governors' vice chairman at the time, said recently. "It appeared to me that what we were doing was approving a campus for USF in Lakeland, but it was really intended, long term, to be another university."

The building plans coincide with a new campus focus on applied learning in math and sciences, and a new name: USF Polytechnic. The move, Goodman promises, could turn Polk County into a mini-Silicon Valley. Genshaft calls it a strategic move for the USF system's future.

Lawmakers also buy into the vision, giving the branch autonomy and setting aside $15 million for the new campus, the biggest chunk of construction money USF Poly had ever gotten.

It was only the beginning.

In the years to come, even as shrinking state revenues force public agencies to tighten their belts, money would keep rolling in for USF Poly.


The new campus project gets $11.4 million in 2009, more than any other university building project and almost double the amount the Board of Governors recommends.

A year later, Alexander pushes for another $46 million, including $10 million for a new pharmacy program. The latter has many scratching their heads, as the rest of USF's health programs are housed at the main Tampa campus.

"It's a good idea," Alexander tells reporters with a smile.

In a comment that would foreshadow charges that he bullied the Board of Governors, Alexander says exactly where he thinks authority rests for making higher education decisions.

"They can be made by educators, but then they'd have to get it funded."

In the end, Gov. Charlie Crist vetoes all of USF Poly's money, but it doesn't slow the momentum in Lakeland. A month later, USF Poly is approved by USF's Board of Trustees to launch 14 new degree programs.



Once again, the Board of Governors asks for what it believes is reasonable funding for a branch campus, albeit a growing one: $6 million.

Not enough, Genshaft writes in an "urgent" letter to the state university system chancellor, singling out USF Poly as one of the system's highest priorities. The board proposal is bumped to $20 million.

The Senate's spending plan leaves no doubt what Alexander thinks. It includes the $46 million for USF Poly that Crist vetoed. And slipped into the budget is language that some would call payback. It would eliminate the Board of Governors' Foundation and do away with 17 of the board's 50 staff positions.

Those cuts do not make it in the final budget. USF Poly's funding does.


Gov. Rick Scott vetoes $615 million from the state budget before signing it, including money for every university building project — except one.

USF Polytechnic New Campus Phase I: $35,000,000.

Around a month after the session, a routine decision by the USF Board of Trustees makes it clear to Alexander that USF Poly needs to split off.

Focused on expansion, campus officials ask to add more than a dozen new degree programs. But because the 14 approved the year before had not yet been implemented, trustees okay only three.

It doesn't sit well with Alexander.

"It was a series of these kinds of things," the senator said recently. "I just said, this isn't gonna work."

He puts Genshaft on notice that independence is coming.

"I felt sad," Genshaft recalled recently. "I view the USF system as integral parts of the university."


At a Tiger Bay meeting in Bartow, Alexander drops a bomb.

When asked what he wishes he would have done differently during his 14-year legislative tenure, Alexander responds that he would have tried to avoid so many conflicts.

But he still has a few battles left to fight as he prepares for his final legislative session, because of term limits. He singles out one.

"I believe USF Polytech needs to be Florida Polytech, a university in itself," says Alexander.

He was about to go into the session as the influential chairman of the Senate Budget Committee for the fourth year in a row — a key position to help fund an initiative of this scope.

A day later, 29 Polk leaders send a letter calling on the Board of Governors to set USF Poly free.

In the months to come, a couple of the signers of that letter would reconsider their rush to support the idea, saying they let civic pride overtake common sense. By then, it was too late.


Over the next two months, things begin to snowball. Protest starts to churn. Faculty members and students oppose the move in campus surveys sent to state leaders. USF's Board of Trustees carefully words a statement supporting the USF system remaining whole.

Goodman and Alexander formally present their plan to the Board of Governors, pledging to keep costs down. Board members express skepticism but vote to look into the issue.

Meanwhile, the bid for independence puts a spotlight on the 1,300-student campus.

Goodman finds himself in hot water over what some see as lavish and questionable spending. That includes travels around the globe, the hiring of his two sons, and half a million dollars pledged for a campus documentary detailing renowned architect Santiago Calatrava's extravagant vision.

Then Goodman makes international headlines after news breaks that he spent $10,000 on life-sized Star Wars statues.

State Sens. Paula Dockery, R-Lakeland, and Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, call for a full campus audit.


Alexander is pacing.

It's not yet 9 a.m., and sunlight streams through the window of the FAU conference room in Boca Raton, where the Board of Governors is meeting.

Behind the scenes, people are whispering "bully," claiming Alexander intimidated the board into putting the USF Poly decision on the agenda in the first place.

"He was holding up our budget last year," board member John Temple later recalled. "He was going to cut it or eliminate it if we didn't go along with him. … It was all political pressure."

As the four-hour debate gets under way, students, faculty and university leaders make their case against splitting off USF Poly.

Alexander makes his case for it. "There's a lot of talk about supporting this campus," he says, "but it's never been supported."

The board makes a Solomon-like decision, agreeing to let USF Poly split away —­ but only after meeting a number of benchmarks.

Days later, the USF Poly faculty issues a "no confidence" vote in Goodman.

Alexander sends a letter to the Board of Governors, calling into question Genshaft's leadership.


Some wonder if that board vote could have ended the drama. "It's hard to say," Alexander says. That's because Genshaft's actions a month later sparked a new breaking point for Alexander.

In a curt letter, Genshaft swiftly removes Goodman from his post and replaces him with David Touchton, a Lakeland accountant who had urged caution on a split.

Alexander sees this as an intentional jab.

"When that happened, it became crystal clear," he said later, "that USF wanted to undermine the independence."

Members of the Board of Governors are upset, too — even though Genshaft called each member of the board's USF Poly transition task force to tell them of her plans to let Goodman go.

In a hastily organized phone call after news of Goodman's removal becomes public, members of that task force take turns scolding Genshaft for what they see as a "lack of collaboration."

"I find that what president Genshaft has done is she's redefined the word 'collaboration' and it is now spelled V-I-N-D-I-C-A-T-I-O-N," said board member Norman Tripp, a Fort Lauderdale lawyer.

Genshaft apologizes and promises that USF will help make the independent polytechnic school a reality.

It's too late.



In the end, it all comes back to the Legislature — cementing a culture of higher education meddling that was denounced at the start of the session by House Speaker Dean Cannon.

Tucked into the Senate's higher education appropriations committee's budget recommendations is a one-page bill that would immediately create Florida Polytechnic University.

The night the plan is revealed, Sen. Evelyn Lynn, the committee's chair, reads through the bill quickly. "This is the language already established by the Board of Governors," says Lynn, R-Ormond Beach.

Except it wasn't. The bill would split USF Poly off right away — without all the pesky benchmarks set by the Board of Governors.

USF's lobbyist, Mark Walsh, is standing in the back of the room, not looking particularly surprised. Someone asks him why.

"I've been expecting to see something like this since Nov. 10," Walsh replies, referring to the day after the Board of Governors put those benchmarks in place.

Days later, the Senate's complete budget recommendations are released, proposing a larger budget cut to USF than any other university.

"It's political," USF chief operating officer John Long tells university trustees at an emergency meeting that night in Tampa. The community pleads with local lawmakers for help.

Amid all the uproar over the budget, the original opposition to creating a new university has largely quieted. While House and Senate leaders strike a deal giving USF back much of its funding, Alexander gets the Poly-split bill passed through both chambers.

The vote in the Senate is 36-4.

The vote in the House is 86-31.


The bill still needs to make it past one last hurdle: Gov. Rick Scott.

Once he receives it, he'll have 15 days to decide whether to sign or veto it.

Throughout the legislative session, Scott said he wasn't sure it was the right time to create a 12th university in Florida. But if it were to happen, he felt the Board of Governors' plan made sense — unless someone convinced him otherwise.

Someone asked him the question again after both chambers approved their budget. Would he veto the bill to create Florida Polytechnic?

Scott's answer was a little different.

"I sat down with JD Alexander the other day," Scott said, "and he was telling me his reason why he thinks it ought to happen."

Contributing to this report: Information from the Lakeland Ledger, Times archives, Board of Governors email records, Board of Governors archives, USF news release archives and Times news researcher Natalie Watson. Kim Wilmath can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3337.

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