The hot-button proposal to consolidate all three University of South Florida System institutions into one university received another vote of confidence on Thursday.
The state board of governors, which oversees Florida's 12 public universities, unanimously voted at a meeting in Tallahassee to support the plan, recommending that the legislation be approved. The proposal is part of a much larger higher education package.
"It just makes sense. I think it is just going to help to unify your entire university and I support it," said governor Wendy Link.
Governor Norman Tripp said on Thursday that separate accreditations at USF St. Petersburg and USF Sarasota-Manatee "didn't work out quite like maybe some people thought it would."
He continued: "I think now we have an opportunity to bring the children back home (and) make them part of the family. And I never did understand how it benefited the people in the community, particularly. I think they're better with strength — USF full force, and I support it."
The endorsement follows an email from USF System President Judy Genshaft earlier this week in which she wrote, "It is still early, but we believe there is the potential for significant benefits to our students."
The proposal, crafted by Rep. Chris Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor, would phase out the prized separate accreditation at USF St. Petersburg and USF Sarasota-Manatee, uniting those schools as one under Tampa control. The bill would place the details of that plan in USF's hands, and USF leaders have stressed that the regional campuses would have a strong voice at the table. Still, a history of tension over autonomy between USF Tampa and USF St. Petersburg in particular has some concerned.
Governor Alan Levine said he would be comfortable deferring to the USF board of trustees.
"This is why they're there," he said. "We do need to be sensitive. There are reasons why the folks in St. Pete and other places have local pride in those institutions so we do need to be mindful of that and take their concerns seriously. It may have been political, but there are reasons for the politics."
In a phone call on Thursday, USF trustee Stephanie Goforth, also the head of the USF St. Petersburg campus board, said that plans for community meetings to hear reactions and ideas are coming along. She said she was heartened by the strong reactions to the proposal, which indicated USF St. Petersburg's deep ties to the community.
"I think what we need to do is look at what is going to be really good about this," she said. "Let's make sure that we do it the right way. We're all going to make sure that these students are taken care of."
She continued: "Let's face it, we don't know what's going to happen. Whatever it looks like, the focus is the same. The focus is student success. … I'm not interested in going backwards. This campus is going to continue to thrive."