TAMPA — University of South Florida president Judy Genshaft went to Atlanta on Tuesday, where she and other state higher education leaders met with the president of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools.
She came back with a message: Contrary to what Sen. JD Alexander has been saying around the state Capitol, the University of South Florida Polytechnic cannot be accredited by July.
A more realistic expectation for gaining that status is probably a year and a half at the earliest, Genshaft said, and that's only if the Lakeland branch campus remains under USF's accreditation umbrella in the meantime.
She said splitting USF Poly away from the school immediately would prolong the process even more, by at least three years. And in that case, at least the first class of the new university would have to graduate from a nonaccredited institution.
"We asked if there were any other models that we knew of," Genshaft told reporters upon landing at Tampa International Airport. "And there were no other models."
Genshaft had scheduled the SACS meeting long before the Senate voted to immediately split USF Poly from the main campus. That proposal, a priority for Alexander, was slipped into a budget bill and approved 35-4 last week.
It veers from the USF Poly independence track already laid out by the Florida Board of Governors, which made separate accreditation a prerequisite. The board also required that the school have an enrollment of 1,244 students — with half of them in science, technology, engineering and math fields — and complete at least two of the buildings on its now-empty campus site before it could be independent.
Until told differently, that's the path Genshaft is following. It's also the path that's preferred by Gov. Rick Scott, who would need to sign off on Alexander's bill, pending approval by the House, before it could become a reality.
In a speech on the Senate floor last week, Alexander, R-Lake Wales, said gaining separate accreditation under the USF brand could come by this summer. And then Polytechnic would work toward gaining accreditation as a separate institution, he said, with no gap in accreditation for students.
Unless a school has accreditation, its students cannot receive financial aid.
Alexander envisions that all happening under the guidance of a new, separate fiduciary board, with USF staying "engaged" until the new Florida Polytechnic University is able to gain that full accreditation.
In comments Tuesday, he stuck to his expected summer completion date for USF Poly's separate accreditation, at which point, he said, the fiduciary board would take over and usher the school to full independence. That is, "if USF does its work properly."
But, according to Genshaft, Alexander can't have it both ways.
Either USF Poly will have to stay under USF's umbrella, as the Board of Governors planned, or it will have to split off right away, as Alexander's bill calls for. A separate institution can't piggyback on USF's accreditation unless it's part of USF.
If the USF Poly-split bill does go through, students enrolled at USF Poly now can still earn their degrees from USF and take classes in Lakeland, Genshaft said. But she can't make the same promise for students who may come to the new university after it breaks away.
Genshaft said SACS president Belle Wheelan planned to send a letter to lawmakers today clarifying the accreditation options.
Times/Herald staff writers Steve Bousquet and Matthew Riva contributed to this report. Kim Wilmath can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3337.