Based on the overwhelming evidence, the Board of Governors that oversees the state university system has an easy decision to make when it meets Wednesday to consider allowing the University of South Florida's Lakeland campus to become an independent public university. Anything other than a firm rejection of this poorly designed proposal will be caving in to the power politics behind this expensive pipe dream.
USF has poked so many holes in the plan to allow USF Polytechnic to become the state's 12th public university that the proposal cannot possibly survive on merit. The brainstorm lacks intellectual vigor and is not well-grounded in reasonable financial forecasts, expected student demand or a clear vision for the state's higher education system. All that's left is the unbridled thirst for development in Central Florida and the political muscle of Senate budget chairman J.D. Alexander, who has all but frightened USF president Judy Genshaft and University Chancellor Frank Brogan into silence.
Fortunately, the public record speaks volumes. The USF staff has reported to the Board of Governors that while the branch campus has $77.4 million in assets, it has only $14.5 million that could be used to pursue new initiatives. There are no state funds to match privately raised money for new buildings as the USF Poly plan counts on. Its supporters can produce all the fancy videos they want of a new, high-tech campus. And they can deceive themselves into believing there would be no need for more state revenue in the first few years. But those are fantasies, and even if this were a defensible improvement to higher education there is no money to pay for this ego trip.
USF Poly fails on academic merit as well. Its supporters say students could be given a one-time option to transfer to another USF campus rather than stay at the newly independent school. But USF says many Polytech students would not meet USF's admission requirements. It calls USF Poly's projected enrollment increases, from the current 1,300 students to 16,000 in 15 years, "unusually high.'' It questions how the campus expects to add 48 new degree programs, maintain a low student-to-faculty ratio and cover services and purchasing costs now shared with USF. None of these issues have been adequately addressed.
Alexander and his allies have been plotting this power play for years, and they are not deterred by facts, logic or statewide concerns. The senator already has steamrolled his colleagues in the Legislature and stared down Gov. Rick Scott to get $35 million for Polytech in a year of billions in budget cuts. He tried to steal USF's new college of pharmacy for Lakeland, too, but that was too brazen even for Scott, who vetoed it. An independent Polytech has nothing to do with a smart vision for higher education or meeting growing student demand at already crowded campuses. It has everything to do with political muscle and leaving a legacy for Alexander, a member of a prominent Central Florida family who will leave the Legislature next year because of term limits.
Even if the Board of Governors approves the creation of Polytech as an independent university, the governor and the Legislature will still have to sign off. But the Board of Governors sets statewide policy for higher education, and it should not allow this boondoggle to move forward at the expense of USF and the rest of the system. The evidence is clear, and anyone who votes for this political trophy will not be able to claim later that they did not know the cost to taxpayers and higher education.