Opposition to USF consolidation proposal simmers in St. Petersburg

Retired faculty and county leaders in politics and business are urging the Legislature to slow down before advancing the controversial proposal to unite three University of South Florida institutions.
The University of South Florida St. Petersburg has some fierce defenders in Pinellas County, who have voiced concerns about the potential effects of a consolidation plan. SCOTT KEELER | TIMES
The University of South Florida St. Petersburg has some fierce defenders in Pinellas County, who have voiced concerns about the potential effects of a consolidation plan. SCOTT KEELER | TIMES
Published Jan. 26, 2018|Updated Jan. 26, 2018

As the proposal to consolidate the University of South Florida System chugs along in Tallahassee, some Pinellas County voices are urging the Legislature to slow down and reconsider.

They add to a chorus of confusion and suspicion that immediately swelled in St. Petersburg as defenders of the proudly independent USF St. Petersburg reckoned with the potential loss of autonomy if absorbed by USF Tampa.

The Pinellas Board of County Commissioners wrote to Sen. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg, with concerns about the lack of public discussion, asking that the provision be withdrawn altogether.

The retired faculty and staff association at USF St. Petersburg wrote letters strongly opposing the potential loss of accreditation at their university.

"(The) USF St. Petersburg Campus has flourished and presents a bright future under current separate accreditation and administrative and budget independence," reads the resolution they drafted. "The future of that prospect will be threatened with the proposed single accreditation under the Tampa Campus with resultant administrative control over decisions … residing with Tampa Campus personnel."

And in a press release, the St. Petersburg Chamber of Commerce asked the Legislature "to hit PAUSE" on the idea," requesting a formal study that includes input from local voices.

While benefits to students and the region are possible, the Chamber said, the hastily introduced provision seemed to catch the entire community by surprise, raising questions about whether it is a well-considered path.

"We are concerned with the pace of taking this from an idea to a policy without any public process or due diligence," the Chamber said.

In the letter from county commissioners, Ken Welch wrote that separate accreditation only came to USF St. Petersburg in 2006 after years of planning. He said there simply hasn't been enough time to consider the proposed legislation — potential benefits and drawbacks alike.

Proponents of the plan say that consolidation will elevate the regional campuses in St. Petersburg and Sarasota-Manatee, making them one preeminent university that shares the bonus funding that Tampa will soon enjoy. Critics point to a sour history between the schools, with lingering distrust of Tampa authority in St. Petersburg, that makes the prospect of losing decision-making power over courses and hiring even less attractive.

"We encourage open dialogue," Welch wrote, endorsing town halls and information sessions that USF already has in the works. Next year, he said, "We will be better suited to move forward with thoughtful legislation that advances the goal we all share, to continue to provide all Floridians with access to world class higher education institutions."

Recently, the proposal won a crucial vote of support from Florida's governing body for public universities. USF System President Judy Genshaft has also now publicly discussed potential benefits of consolidation.

The retired faculty group remains unconvinced. In one document, its board of directors said USF Tampa's lack of opposition spoke volumes as to who would benefit most from the plan.

"Would the citizens of St. Petersburg and Pinellas County be better off under the proposed arrangement? An unbiased answer would be a unanimous NO," the letter reads. "It has also been suggested that achieving Pre-Eminent status for USF will bring additional funds to USF which will be shared with St. Petersburg. That suggestion is naïve and is in direct contrast to the experience of past USF St. Petersburg officials."