The Florida Board of Governors' decision Wednesday to check the ambitions of the University of South Florida Polytechnic in Lakeland stopped, for now, an ill-conceived plan to immediately grant the campus independence. But it was a timid outcome from a board that voters have charged with directing Florida's university system. Rather than kicking the issue down the road, the governors should have killed it outright. Instead, they were cowed by politics, allowing a powerful state senator and upstart college administrator to set higher education policy that ultimately diverts resources from more pressing needs.
Wednesday's decision allowed both sides to claim partial victory — often the surest sign of a politically pragmatic decision, but not necessarily the right one. After a four-hour debate, the governors voted 13-3 to deny USF Poly independence for now but to set strict benchmarks toward achieving that goal. That decision answered the most obvious flaw in the push: that USF Poly's outsized plans to teach up to 16,000 students focusing on science, technology, engineering and mathematics in 15 years were wholly unrealistic given time and fiscal constraints.
But in accepting that USF Poly should eventually be independent — and setting steps toward that end — the governors handed USF Poly's two biggest backers, state Sen. J.D. Alexander, R-Lake Wales, and USF Poly regional chancellor Marshall Goodman, an extraordinary victory. Just 14 weeks after a group of prominent Polk County residents wrote the board seeking that the Lakeland campus be named the state's 12th stand-alone university, the governors drew a map of how to get there.
Never mind that wasn't in the best interest of USF students or Florida taxpayers, which already struggle to adequately support 11 public universities. Never mind that the rhetorical goals cited — that USF Poly will train students for better-paying jobs that Florida needs — could be done more cheaply and quickly at other, more established institutions. None of that mattered Wednesday as Alexander, the Legislature's most powerful state budget writer, sat in the audience and brought along the anticipated next Senate president, Don Gaetz of Niceville, for additional, shameless intimidation.
It also didn't help that the higher education establishment, sensing the political realities, kept its head down. It wasn't until Wednesday that USF president Judy Genshaft and the USF Board of Trustees finally and formally laid out opposition to USF Poly's independence — though faculty and students had done it weeks before.
In the end, only two members of the Board of Governors displayed any significant courage in calling this deal what it was: a political and parochial shakedown thinly veiled as education policy. Board member John Temple of Boca Raton, a real estate developer, derided USF Poly's simplistic separation plan. New College student Michael Long was the only board member who actually called the senator out.
Still unknown is what Alexander might try to orchestrate when lawmakers convene in January. For now, Floridians' best hope is that in punting Wednesday, the governors won't cower and reset the goal posts before three to five years from now, the earliest chance that USF Poly will have to meet the first benchmark, separate accreditation. The governors' job now is to stick to the standards they set.