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A tale of two universities // THE NEW KID

Because of spiraling population growth and angry outcries from voters, Florida is opening a new university, the state's 10th and the first since Florida International University in Miami and North Florida in Jacksonville both opened in 1972. Florida Gulf Coast University is slated to hold its first classes in the fall of 1997, and will serve the fast-growing southwest coast, which has about 138,000 college-age residents.

Development of the 760-acre campus, 20 miles south of Fort Myers on the northern rim of the Everglades along Interstate 75, officially began in 1995. Progress was held up for a few years because environmentalists were concerned that toxins from the area and other problems associated with vehicular traffic would further degrade the Everglades' distressed ecosystem.

Now that environmental and university officials have devised conservation plans that will restore wetlands and protect the habitats of wading birds and other indigenous animals and plants, construction of FGCU should move full speed ahead.

President Roy McTarnaghan is in an enviable position. Unlike many of his colleagues who have led the state's other universities during their early years, McTarnaghan has no illusions about the school's mission. Even before the first brick was laid, he had a master plan, a concrete vision of how the campus will evolve to serve its constituents into the next century.

Taking into account the area's growth, FGCU is being built as a model of managing classroom overcrowding. It promises to lead the nation in education on several fronts, especially in cyberspace with distance learning _ instruction from afar by way of various telecommunication and digital technologies that include e-mail, theInternet, video conferencing, satellites and high-tech audio. As officials invest in technology, they must remain mindful of the need to educate the whole student who can work in and contribute to Florida's diverse population and assorted industries. McTarnaghan seems to be up to the challenge.

Besides being the cyberspace campus, FGCU will differ from the other nine state universities in other ways. Most controversial is that the faculty will not receive tenure but two- to five-year contracts. Surprisingly, McTarnaghan said, 4,000 people nationwide applied for a handful of professorships. Faculty will be asked to conduct research in fields outside their specialties to create an interdisciplinary environment for students.

This is a logical move because the colleges will not award traditional bachelor's degrees in single majors but will offer baccalaureate degrees in liberal arts, with concentrations in subjects that the students choose. For now, the school will employ 300 faculty, administrators and staff to handle 17 undergraduate and nine graduate programs. Enrollment is projected to be 2,500 in the first year and about 10,000 by 2,003.

On yet another front, the campus will forge partnerships with local businesses and utilities to give students on-the-job experiences alongside seasoned professionals. At the top of the list will be the environment, McTarnaghan said, because FGCU sits at the edge of the Everglades and because quality air, water and land are the state's economic lifeline. He hopes to attract some of the nation's best environmentalists to the faculty.

McTarnaghan is wise to focus on the institution's mission to serve its region in attainable ways, instead of trying to become a mega-campus on the hill that grows too fast and too big for its own good. Like the University of South Florida to the north, Florida Gulf Coast University has to define itself in terms of its environment and people, and position itself to grow accordingly.

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