They had the color charts, construction photos and optimistic projections. Their rhetoric was flawless about the importance of science and engineering, business partnerships and higher education for the 21st century. But the pep rally for the boondoggle known as Florida Polytechnic University before the Board of Governors on Thursday was less than reassuring. House Speaker Will Weatherford should continue exploring ways to reel in this unaffordable fantasy before the state wastes hundreds of millions more on it.
A year after former state Sen. JD Alexander swiped the Lakeland campus from the University of South Florida and forced his colleagues to create a 12th university, there is buyer's remorse in Tallahassee. Gov. Rick Scott, who failed to stop Alexander's power play last year, sounded less than enthusiastic about Florida Polytech's prospects this week during a meeting with the Times editorial board. The Senate appears disinclined to give the new university even half of the $27 million it expects this year, and Weatherford wonders whether the campus should be tied to another institution such as the University of Florida. If only this sensible skepticism would have emerged a year ago.
Before the first ostentatious building is completed and 18 months before the first students are expected, Florida Polytech needs a lot more money to get off the ground. Without Alexander to run interference, school officials were forced to drop their pitch to lawmakers for an additional $25 million. They don't have enough money to build the first dormitory, and they are looking for corporate partners for donations. Good luck with that.
Dean Colson, chairman of the Board of Governors that oversees the state university system, acknowledged Thursday he has been "worried about this from the very beginning" because of Polytech's cost and the difficulty in recruiting top students to a new university that is still developing its curriculum, hiring faculty and seeking accreditation. Florida Polytech hopes to welcome its first class of 500 students in the fall of 2014, and that sounds awfully optimistic.
Robert Gidel, the chairman of Polytech's board, and Ava Parker, the interim chief operating officer, talked a good game. They spoke about practical approaches to engineering courses, hiring nontenured faculty and attracting students from charter schools and foreign countries. Gidel talked about attracting private capital and the experiences at Stanford University, but that exuberant optimism should be tempered by reality: Lakeland is not Palo Alto, and Florida does not have the money to pursue this fantasy.
The Board of Governors promised to continue to pay close attention to the development of Florida Polytech. The Legislature should do more than that. Alexander is gone, pragmatism is back and lawmakers should correct last year's expensive mistake before it's too late.