The University of South Florida's president and trustees want USF's new $10 million pharmacy school to be in Tampa. But their views don't matter to J.D. Alexander, the powerful state Senate budget chairman. Alexander is steering the pharmacy school to his home county of Polk — miles from USF's medical school. It is a flagrant use of political muscle for personal gain, and USF president Judy Genshaft and state lawmakers ought to stand up to this bully.
Alexander, R-Lake Wales, is not the first lawmaker to exploit a budget committee chairmanship to steer big public projects to his district. But this is an outrageous example of legislative meddling in higher education at the expense of taxpayers and students. Investing in higher education can help retool Florida's economy, but not if scarce tax dollars are spent foolishly and in the wrong place.
For two years, USF has sought to add a pharmacy school to its medical complex in Tampa, where students could have easy access to clinical rotations. Citing demographic trends, most notably the aging of the baby boom generation, USF makes a compelling case that there is demand for more pharmaceutical graduates than those produced by the state's five pharmacy schools, including those at the University of Florida and Florida A&M University. The state estimates demand for pharmacists will increase 25 percent by 2017. USF seeks to open next year with 50 students and grow to 300.
Alexander wrote a single sentence into an amendment on the bill (SB 838) directing that the pharmacy school be built at USF Polytechnic — the same fledgling campus he earmarked $5 million in construction funds for last year. Alexander contends he's just looking out for his district. But the citrus grower and grandson of the late Ben Hill Griffin Jr. also has extensive business investments that could benefit from economic development there, particularly an expanded university campus.
If Florida is ever to get higher education policy right, the location of university programs and professional schools cannot be decided by political fiat. Alexander's plan ignores "New Florida," the Board of Governors' initiative to double funding for higher education in five years and impose statewide coordination of programs to increase student access and research innovation. It also flies in the face of common sense.
Fortunately, the 2010-11 state budget isn't done. Senate President Jeff Atwater, a Republican candidate for chief financial officer, could demonstrate his dedication to fiscal responsibility by directing Alexander to withdraw his amendment. And the House could refuse to go along. And Genshaft and USF trustees could stand up for their university and tell Alexander the pharmacy school belongs in Tampa.