Saturday, May 26, 2018
Opinion

John Romano: Consider the students before deciding on independence for USF Poly

The fight is almost over, and the grownups seem happy.

The bill that would turn USF Polytechnic into the state's 12th university has landed on the desk of Gov. Rick Scott and needs only his signature to become reality.

That means the political scheming of Sen. JD Alexander, R-Lake Wales, is almost complete. That means the budget concerns of University of South Florida leaders are close to being put to rest. And that means legislators are all sleeping soundly.

But has anyone stopped to ask what that means for USF Poly students?

"I haven't found anyone on this campus who is in favor of that bill,'' said Damon Dennis, the USF Poly student government president. "Our office is right next to the student lounge, and I talk to people about it every day. No one likes it.''

The story has been told and retold dozens of times, so I won't bother you again with all of the details.

Basically what happened is this:

As Senate budget chairman, Alexander had the muscle to threaten USF with major funding cuts if he didn't get his independent university. Fearing this political blackmail, USF agreed to cut its Lakeland campus loose in exchange for budget concessions.

Sure it got a little messy, but everyone wins in the end.

Unless you're talking about the 2,000 or so students on the Lakeland campus who lack the money and lobbyists to persuade anyone in Tallahassee to listen to them.

"I think that's a sentiment felt by a lot of the students around here,'' said Sage Stevens, a member of the student government executive council. "We kind of got sold out.''

Current students have been assured they will graduate with accreditation from USF, but they fear they will be marginalized as the campus moves away from mainstream programs and evolves into the math and science specialization of Florida Polytechnic.

They worry class options will shrink, and they will be forced to travel to USF campuses in other counties. They worry about the quality of instructors plummeting.

Essentially, they worry that a Going-Out-of-Business sign is about to be taped to the front door of their university, and everything will go downhill from there.

"Going to Tallahassee to the House of Representatives and watching them vote on this was very disturbing,'' said Jessica McLemore, secretary of the student government. "Knowing how misinformed they are when voting on things as important as this? It stinks. It makes you wonder about everything else they're doing.

"They're spending millions of dollars on a new university at the same time they're cutting hundreds of millions from the state university system. You would think that's common sense. You would think they understand that, but they don't.''

Sen. Paula Dockery, R-Lakeland, wrote a letter to Gov. Scott last week requesting he visit the USF Poly campus and talk to students before deciding whether to sign the bill.

A spokeswoman for Dockery said they have not yet heard from the governor's office. A spokeswoman for the governor said Scott was happy to listen to the concerns of anyone involved.

As to whether Scott will visit USF Poly? The governor's office had no comment.

John Romano can be reached at [email protected]

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