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New College ready to cut ties with USF

The feeling in Sarasota is for the college to be independent, USF's President Genshaft says.

University of South Florida President Judy Genshaft says she could support a plan to make New College in Sarasota an independent public college, severing its 25-year relationship with USF.

"I wish they would remain with USF, but if they do want to split off, I wish them well," Genshaft said Thursday.

If the split does happen, New College could become Florida's 11th public university. That would leave the 650-student liberal arts college to compete with the University of Floridas and USFs of the state for legislative largesse.

The idea is not new; apparently the dream of independence has been flickering since the schools merged in 1975, when New College was foundering financially and found stability as a part of USF. Evidently that idea has gained steam in the last few weeks and has some high-powered supporters in Sarasota and Tallahassee.

Senate President John McKay supports the idea and is ready to craft an amendment to a bill to make it happen if support is widespread, according to Christina Johnson, McKay's director of communications.

Clearly there is some support for the break.

"It's been a very happy marriage with USF, but there is a point in time where you have to look to the future," said Rolland Heiser, president of the New College Foundation. "I think this is a question of growing up. It looks very much like it's going to happen."

Despite the sudden momentum for the break with USF, some at New College want to know how the college's financial health and unique mission might be preserved.

"The problem is we know so little about what's in the bill," said New College dean Michael Bassis. "We know nothing about how it would work."

Bassis said he was unsure how the recent talk of a more autonomous New College shifted to a plan for outright independence and severing ties with USF.

"I have yet to hear anybody make the case for why independence for New College would be the best thing for the state or for New College and the students who come here to study," Bassis said.

State Sen. Don Sullivan, R-Largo, said more details on the plan might be available soon. "We want to make sure we maximize all the possibilities," Sullivan said. "We're very close, but until I get the language and everyone has a chance to look at it, I shouldn't say anything."

Much as she did when there was talk of severing the St. Petersburg campus from USF, Genshaft has been gauging support for an independent college in Sarasota.

In the case of the St. Petersburg campus, she found that support was strong to maintain the campus as a part of USF. She has been working to craft an arrangement to grant St. Petersburg more autonomy, while remaining a part of USF.

She said what she has found in Sarasota is different.

"Many of their supporters have expressed to me that this may be the right time to go independent," she said.

Genshaft decided she would support the plan if that is what the New College community wants. She met with New College supporters on Monday.