We should have seen this coming. Months after securing $35 million for University of South Florida Polytechnic's new campus in Lakeland, state Sen. J.D. Alexander wants the campus to sever its ties with USF and become an independent school. It's another power play by an arrogant lawmaker who respects no authority other than himself. Gov. Rick Scott, the Legislature, the Board of Governors (which oversees the state university system) and USF president Judy Genshaft should not stand for it.
This is grand theft in broad daylight, and it is no way to set higher education policy for the state. It directly challenges the efforts by chancellor Frank Brogan to bring some order to the university system, which is really not a system but a loose affiliation of 11 public universities that too often compete against each other for programs and students. And it shows that then-Gov. Charlie Crist was right when he vetoed the $35 million that Alexander stuck into the budget last year for his pet project and that Scott was naive to try to please the powerful Appropriations Committee chairman when he let the money go through this year. There are no limits to Alexander's audacity.
For USF, the situation could be worse. Fortunately, Scott vetoed $10 million that would have built a home for USF's new college of pharmacy on the Lakeland campus just as Crist did a year ago. Otherwise, Alexander would have made off with that as well and Genshaft would have seen her pharmacy school vanish into the undeveloped expanse of Polk County. The pharmacy school has just received its initial accreditation, and its first class of 50 students will arrive next month. The pharmacy school belongs in Tampa with its older siblings in USF Health, including the colleges of medicine, nursing and public health.
Alexander's power play directly challenges Genshaft's vision for USF. Unique among the state's universities, USF includes the Lakeland campus with those in St. Petersburg and Sarasota that are virtually independent but under the university's umbrella. That gives those campuses the benefits of smaller settings and the recognition of the brand name of a larger university. The wars of governance and independence such as those that engulfed USF St. Petersburg are over, and now Alexander is starting a new one.
There is a calculation in everything the Polk County Republican pursues. This one might be the embryonic discussions about the size of the state's universities — three are among the 10 largest in the country — and the possible need for another one. Alexander is pushing USF Polytech to the front of the line before there is a line. But there is no indication that Lakeland is the best spot for a new university, and the location should not be decided by power politics.
This is not about meeting higher education demands, anyway. This is about opening up Central Florida to unbridled development and the fact that Alexander's company owns thousands of acres of undeveloped land. That's why he supported the dismantlement of growth management and the neutering of water management districts. And that's why he wants the pharmacy college and independence for Polytech. It has nothing to do with education and everything to do with developing land and making money.
Genshaft should stand firm for her vision for USF, even as Alexander controls the purse strings to state spending. And she better enlist the governor, the Board of Governors and the university's strongest business allies for help. Otherwise, she might wake up one day to one less USF campus — and find Alexander has built a football stadium for the Florida Polytechnic Bulls.