When the Florida Board of Governors convenes today to discuss the future of the University of South Florida Polytechnic campus in Lakeland, it should not abdicate all responsibility and allow itself to be bullied by a single state legislator. Republican state Sen. J.D. Alexander's reckless, selfish push to turn the campus into a costly stand-alone university is an example of all that is wrong with public higher education in Florida. The Board of Governors should stand on principle and stand up to Alexander.
For at least three years, legislative leaders have allowed Alexander, the Senate budget chairman, to write higher education policy by parochial fiat. Three years ago, Alexander added "polytechnic" to the Lakeland campus name to denote its ambition to train engineers. Then this year, when nearly all other capital requests for the state university system went unanswered or were vetoed by Gov. Rick Scott, Alexander's audacious $35 million for the new Lakeland campus sailed through. Once again, power politics overruled sound public policy in Tallahassee.
Heading into his last year in office, Alexander wants what he considers the holy grail, to sever Lakeland's ties to USF so it might compete with 11 other state universities for money. Lakeland officials claim they are positioned to spawn the Florida version of Silicon Valley by training engineers. But that is a pipe dream. As a Sunday article by the St. Petersburg Times' Kris Hundley and Kim Wilmath noted, the Lakeland campus has graduated only one engineering major since 2008, calculus isn't even offered on campus and the information technology degree is offered only online.
To dramatically improve that record would require an extraordinary commitment of state support, money that would likely come out of the budgets of USF and other state universities. Nonetheless, Alexander's three-year march has left USF's administration kowtowed. President Judy Genshaft no longer openly challenges Alexander's outsized ambitions even though the Lakeland campus is nowhere near as mature as the university's St. Petersburg and Sarasota campuses.
It's not the first time a lawmaker's brashness has run roughshod over higher education officials. The Legislature dissolved the former Board of Regents after it resisted then-House Speaker John Thrasher's successful drive to create a medical school at his alma mater, Florida State University. Voters countered by approving the formation of the Board of Governors in 2002, but the board and chancellor Frank Brogan have yet to fully flex their muscles. Now would be a good time to start.
Florida desperately needs to do more for higher education, including adopting a long-term vision for improving funding and academic quality, and increasing access to students statewide. Eventually that could lead to more autonomy for the Lakeland campus from USF or another independent university. But Alexander's plan won't accomplish any of those things. Rather, it just ensures that in his small corner of Florida — where his family has held vast economic interests for generations — taxpayers would underwrite a boondoggle.
The Board of Governors should make it clear today it won't play along. And Senate President Mike Haridopolos, who gave Alexander his powerful budget post, should also let Alexander know he's abused the system enough already. What happens to the Lakeland campus should be rooted in cooperation with USF and a statewide vision, not one state senator's obsession to build his legacy. That is the best way forward for students and taxpayers.