Senate plans would cripple USF

Published February 14 2012
Updated February 14 2012

The Florida Senate has unleashed a two-pronged attack that, if allowed to stand, will damage higher education and cripple the University of South Florida.

The first salvo was the latest twist on the plan to transform USF Polytechnic in Lakeland into the state's 12th independent university, initiated by Senate Budget Chairman JD Alexander last year. The Board of Governors, while acknowledging the absence of evidence that such a new university is needed, voted to set Polytechnic on a steady road to separation that would safeguard its students' interests.

Eventual independence now seems certain, with many people working diligently to achieve it — even the faculty whose rights were trampled in the stampede of personal ambition. But this is not good enough for Alexander. Last week, a surrogate introduced a measure to separate USF Poly immediately — and to punish USF for having questioned his wisdom.

That's where the second salvo comes in. The proposed Senate budget for the entire State University System would take $400 million from the system, with cuts divided unevenly among the universities. USF, whose state funding comprises 12.1 percent of the total state allocation, would lose the most — $78.9 million, or almost 20 percent of the systemwide cut. Almost all of the cut would come from the Tampa campus. No rationale has been offered as to how or why the differential cuts were determined.

This isn't even the worst of it. The current Polytechnic faculty and staff would be let go, with USF required to hire them all, at a cost of around $18 million to USF. Current Polytechnic students would finish their studies at USF, not in Lakeland, but with no per-student state funding. The pharmacy program, originally slated to eventually reside in Lakeland, would be in Tampa, but its $6 million budget would revert to the new Polytechnic. The $103 million represents a cut of almost 60 percent. And to top it off, an additional $25 million would be "held back" from USF's budget until all ties have been cut — with no time frame set. The overall impact: USF loses $128 million from its state-funded budget of $180 million.

Meanwhile, Florida Polytechnic would begin its new life with its own healthy budget — but no faculty, no staff, no students and no accreditation. In the best of growth scenarios, it would take at least five years to reach the standards set by the regional accrediting agency. And contrary to Alexander's assertion, there is no such thing as "provisional accreditation."

The massive budget cuts proposed by the Senate are nonrecurring — that is, the cuts must happen now but may be restored later. The idea is that the universities will dip into their supposedly large reserves to take the cuts. Anyone who thinks USF has $128 million lying around in uncommitted reserves (or "fat") is living a fantasy. Make no mistake, if this budget passes, the university that has become the pride of Tampa Bay will be forced to slash programs — perhaps even entire colleges. Students will find their degree programs gone; layoffs will exacerbate the already dire unemployment in our communities. USF is a proven economic engine for the region, and that engine will sputter and seize up under the strain.

Tampa Bay students, parents, alumni, taxpayers, business leaders and legislators now have a choice. We can stand up and fight for educational and economic opportunities at a proven, accredited and respected university. And we can support careful progress toward a viable polytechnic university, guided by committed faculty and administrators, as mandated by the Board of Governors. Or we can let the Legislature squander millions, and send our children to an unaccredited, imaginary entity that may one day rise in Polk County.

Maybe this is all about one man's burning desire to build a legacy? Only in Florida could a legislator "build" by tearing down a university that in a short half-century has truly built a legacy of excellence and quality.

S. Elizabeth Bird is a professor of anthropology and the University of South Florida system faculty representative on the USF Board of Trustees.