The arrogant and capricious campaign by a powerful Polk County legislator for a standalone public university in his community shows why higher education priorities are so often skewed in Florida. Newly released details of Senate Budget Chairman J.D. Alexander's push to have the University of South Florida's Lakeland campus obtain independence do nothing to increase the plan's legitimacy. Yet the scheme is still expected to overshadow every other discussion on higher education — including funding for all 11 universities — during the legislative session that starts in January. It's up to Senate President Mike Haridopolos and House Speaker Dean Cannon to prevent that from happening.
The business plan USF Polytechnic submitted to the state Board of Governors last week is "laughable," as state Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, aptly put it. It claims the campus now serving 1,300 students would need no additional state revenue in its first few years to operate — even as it launched new programs and hired additional faculty. The plan counts on state matching dollars for private funds raised for facilities, yet that program has been suspended during these tough economic times. And there is no clear provision for financial aid or student recruiting efforts, even though projected enrollment would grow to 16,000 by 2026.
USF officials also weighed in on the plan, noting two dozen shortcomings, including the basic warning that USF Polytechnic's anticipation of a speedy accreditation is highly unlikely. Also of note: Despite promising a lower faculty-student ratio and technology-intensive student training, there aren't any clear resources for either.
None of that matters to Alexander, R-Lake Wales, a smart, longtime lawmaker once known for his statewide vision. Now in his final year in office, he appears greedy and parochial. As the Senate's chief budget writer, Alexander has already made veiled threats that he'll punish those who fight him on his pet project. Never mind what's best for Florida or the state's higher education system. Legislators and taxpayers should not stand for it.