Monday, December 11, 2017

Scott approves bill creating Florida Polytechnic University

Florida has its 12th public university.

As the state's other universities are about to see their coffers drained by hundreds of millions of dollars, Gov. Rick Scott on Friday signed a bill creating Florida Polytechnic.

The bill had sparked an intense reaction across the state, with everyone from students, faculty, politicians and business leaders weighing in.

Acknowledging worries about a financial commitment as the state continues to grapple with a sluggish economy, Scott said Florida Polytechnic's focus on science, technology, engineering and math will "generate a positive return on investment."

His comments echoed those of departing Senate budget chairman JD Alexander, who made turning the University of South Florida's Polk County branch campus into a university his top priority.

"At the end of the day, it's not about me," Alexander, R-Lake Wales, said Friday night. "It's about an opportunity for Florida and the region to have a focused institution unlike any other."

In a written statement, Scott tried to reassure taxpayers that "the new university will not result in additional financial strain on the State University System." Florida Polytechnic will receive millions of dollars in funding previously allocated to USF Polytechnic, he said.

But the Florida Democratic Party called the move "an appalling and wasteful power play by the Republicans in Tallahassee."

"The people of Florida didn't ask for this university," said party spokeswoman Brannon Jordan, "they don't need it and can't afford it."

Sen. Paula Dockery, a Republican from Lakeland who has been one of the most vocal critics of the plan, said Scott's pledge to be fiscally accountable to taxpayers "has been irrevocably broken."

It wasn't all opposition. Thousands of people emailed the governor in the past few weeks supporting the idea. It began with a letter from about 30 Polk business and civic leaders who felt an independent Polytechnic would be an economic boon.

Still, some felt the idea was rushed.

"So many people worked so hard for so long on this campus," said Gene Engle, a Lakeland real estate agent who chaired the USF Poly campus board and sits on the USF Board of Trustees. "You just feel like you had the rug snatched out from under you."

Others felt it shouldn't have happened at all.

USF president Judy Genshaft, who initially spoke out against a campus split but later committed to helping it break away, said she was relieved.

"At least we have a decision," Genshaft said. "We have a direction."

The bill, slipped into the budget during the legislative session, circumvents a decision made last year by the Board of Governors, in response to Alexander's pushing, to allow the campus to split away after meeting certain benchmarks. Those included a minimum enrollment and accreditation.

The bill Scott signed still requires the university to meet those benchmarks — albeit not as conditions of independence.

Members of the Florida Board of Governors, who are appointed by the governor, remained neutral Friday, as most have since SB 1994 first appeared.

"While the Board of Governors suggested one path leading to the creation of a new Polytech, an alternative path was chosen by our elected officials and we respect that decision," board chair Dean Colson said. "The Board takes its constitutional duties for oversight seriously and will work hard to ensure that the Polytech is a success."

The new university has a bit of a financial head-start, with USF having to give it all the reserve money, property, licenses and contracts formerly belonging to the branch campus.

That includes about $70 million committed by the Legislature over the past several years to construct a new campus off Interstate 4, secured largely with Alexander's continued help. The site currently sits empty, a "demucking" stage just completed.

It also has $15 million in reserve money, about $10 million in donations and an appropriation of $27 million in state funds.

But money can't buy students, nor accreditation.

Accreditation alone, required for students to receive federal financial aid, is expected to take three years at the earliest, with at least the first class having to graduate from a nonaccredited institution, the president of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools told Genshaft.

As for current USF Poly students, they may remain with USF until graduation. The bill Scott signed includes $10 million for USF to cover that extra cost, in addition to $6 million for its pharmacy school that was previously funded through USF Poly.

"It will be school as usual," Genshaft promised.

The last university to be created in Florida was New College in 2001, also borne out of USF. It took that school until 2004 to earn its accreditation. Still today, it shares some services with USF's Sarasota-Manatee campus, including the library, police and student health facilities.

The last university to start from scratch was Florida Gulf Coast University, built from the ground up outside Fort Myers in the late 1990s.

In making his case for the new Polytechnic, Alexander often used that university as an example of the ease and speed with which a new institution can be created. (His family was involved in that university's creation, with one of its companies donating land for the campus and then making millions after selling the land that surrounded it.)

But Florida was a different world back then, says one of the Florida Gulf Coast founding staff members. Even then, it was tougher than anyone imagined.

It took six years and more than $70 million to start. Now, with nearly 13,000 students, it gets about $40 million a year in state funding.

"On the front end, you really just don't realize everything that has to be done," said Susan Evans, former Florida Gulf Coast lobbyist who now serves as the university's chief of staff. "It was more work than anyone could have ever dreamed of. More rewarding, too, but I'm glad we were starting FGCU in the early '90s instead of at this point, given the economy."

Alexander isn't worried.

"It's a great day for Florida," he said.

Then, using one of Scott's campaign slogans, said, "Let's get to work."

Kim Wilmath can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3337.

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