Column: Keep USF St. Petersburg independent

SCOTT KEELER   |   Times
Students walk across the University of South Florida St. Petersburg campus, Thursday, 9/28/17. In the background is the school's Student Center. As people in the community discussed the departure of USF St. Petersburg regional chancellor Sophia Wisniewska this week, many of them mentioned the ongoing tension between the small but independent waterfront campus and the USF campus in Tampa.
SCOTT KEELER | Times Students walk across the University of South Florida St. Petersburg campus, Thursday, 9/28/17. In the background is the school's Student Center. As people in the community discussed the departure of USF St. Petersburg regional chancellor Sophia Wisniewska this week, many of them mentioned the ongoing tension between the small but independent waterfront campus and the USF campus in Tampa.
Published January 29 2018
Updated January 29 2018

In 1965, the University of South Florida lacked room for 265 Tampa freshmen, so the college launched the Bayboro Campus in downtown St. Petersburg to accommodate them. For the next three decades, Tampa completely dominated the St. Petersburg campus until then-Sen. Don Sullivan, a Seminole Republican and a fierce advocate of St. Petersburg independence, introduced legislation in 2000 to create Suncoast University in Pinellas County. The proposal narrowly failed, but it became the catalyst for a growing, vibrant USFSP.

In 2006, the St. Petersburg campus received separate accreditation from the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools. That accreditation became a source of pride and independence. USFSP received separate line-item funding from the Legislature instead of receiving funding from Tampa.

Since the accreditation 12 years ago, USFSP has grown to more than 5,000 students and, according to the Tampa Bay Times, has become "a public jewel that has been dramatically improved and expanded."

Now, the jewel in the crown is on the brink of being turned into cubic zirconium. In a bill sponsored by Rep. Chris Sprowls, a Palm Harbor Republican for whom I have great respect, the fate of the St. Petersburg campus is again threatened.

Hidden away on pages 51-53 of the education bill is a provision that "no later than Jan. 15, 2019" USF must submit a plan to "phase out the separate accreditation of the University of South Florida St. Petersburg Campus and the University of South Florida Sarasota/Manatee Campus Ö no later than June 30, 2020."

The justification for the bill is that the regional campuses will receive a share of funding directed to pre-eminent universities. Letís be clear: USF does not and may never receive such funds. In that case, the regional campuses would get nothing.

Even if USF receives pre-eminent funding, there is no guarantee that the St. Petersburg campus would receive its fair share. History is filled with numerous examples where budgeting manipulation took place that prevented regional campuses from receiving what the Legislature authorized.

There was no discussion before the plan was submitted. St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman noted that he was "disappointed that I learned about this from the paper as opposed to receiving any kind of outreach from USF."

Why rush to have a plan in place by Jan. 15, 2019, especially in the absence of prior consultation? As the Tampa Bay Times editorialized: "Lawmakers should slow down and engage the entire community in a broader discussion that provides more detail about the potential benefits and addresses legitimate concerns about unintended consequences."

Under the proposal, USFSP would cease to be a regional campus and revert to being a satellite campus. USFSP has no desire to be the Chechnya to the empire in Tampa.

Interim Chancellor Martin Tadlock promises that St. Petersburg will have a seat at the table. But USFSP would be undermanned, overpowered and left out. Hardly a fair fight.

The Retired Faculty and Staff Association passed a unanimous resolution on Jan. 24 opposing the plan to revoke separate accreditation for the St. Petersburg campus. Many of these retired faculty have lived through decades of domination by Tampa and all have war stories to tell. I do. At the end of my first year at USFSP in 1975, I was told to complete two evaluation forms ó one for the Tampa campus and one for St. Pete.

I wrote a two-page memo explaining my objections. I pointed out that one evaluation was for the calendar year and one was for the academic year. Both asked different questions. I contended that two forms covering different time periods and asking different questions amounted to double jeopardy.

I noted I would be happy to complete either form, just not both. The St. Pete administrator called my memo "the best damn two-page memo I have read." The chair of the Tampa department replied: "I am recommending your termination effective at the end of this academic year." I left USF 35 years later as a full professor emeritus of government, so I won that battle, but it was a war that did not have to be fought.

USFSP now faces an attempt to restore complete control back to Tampa. This would mean that all scheduling decisions, hiring and firing decisions, as well as budgeting decisions would revert to Tampa.

Just as Sen. Sullivan emerged to champion the St. Pete campus in the early 2000s, we need advocates for the St. Pete campus to come forward now and support our interests. We need political support, but we also need support from the nearly 1 million residents of Pinellas County whom we have served for more than 50 years.

We are proud to be part of the USF family, but we have no desire to be dominated by Big Brother.

Darryl Paulson is emeritus professor of government at USF St. Petersburg specializing in Florida politics and elections.

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