The massive higher education bill that would potentially consolidate the University of South Florida System has been put on the back burner as legislators in Tallahassee grapple with responses to the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.
Behind the scenes, though, Tampa Bay lawmakers and USF officials have continued their conversations with the local community — particularly in St. Petersburg, where fears of a consolidation are rooted in years of distrust of USF headquarters in Tampa.
Last week, Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, wrote to the consolidation's main backer to share what he's been hearing from students and other groups.
Brandes' priorities, he told Rep. Chris Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor, are making sure St. Petersburg retains local governance and gets funding for campus facilities and research. He also said providing students non-traditional paths to USF, such as through state college doorways, will be key to preserving access.
"I am confident that together we will achieve an outcome that best serves our students and our community," Brandes said.
The next stop for House Bill 423, which has cleared two hurdles so far, is the House Education committee. It has not yet appeared on an agenda, but those following the bill expect some amendments to surface when it makes its next appearance. The changes are expected to address some of the concerns floated by prominent Pinellas County voices, who recall the days when the St. Petersburg campus strained for funding and freedom under Tampa authority.
Sprowl has said that unification will spread the Tampa campus's growing prestige and state funding to the regional campuses, just as a rising tide lifts all boats. Top USF officials have embraced the idea, anticipating benefits to students, such as shared degree programs without the hurdles of transferring. Officials at USF Sarasota-Manatee have been enthusiastic, too.
But many in St. Petersburg remain wary, to say the least.
Brandes also enclosed a letter from USF St. Petersburg's interim leader, Martin Tadlock, whom he enlisted to suggest "pragmatic additions" to the bill.
Based on 10 meetings with students, faculty, staff and St. Petersburg community members, Tadlock outlined this list of common concerns:
1. We will lack the research support needed to contribute to preeminence. (The state awards universities that meet 11 out of 12 selective metrics with the preeminence designation and rewards them with millions in bonus funding. USF Tampa has achieved preeminence. Under consolidation, all USF campuses would aim for the same lofty preeminence standards, though the regional universities have traditionally had lower numbers.)
2. We do not have the same university model and resources needed that are available at USF Tampa to support student success (degree completion) at the level expected of a preeminent university.
3. We will be less accessible to Pinellas County students and lose our identity as St. Petersburg's university.
4. Campus-based leadership/governance structure will be lost and local control of governance, budget, curriculum, faculty and staff qualifications, etc. will be lost.
5. There will not be equitable distribution of funds.
Tadlock said it could be helpful to reassure the region that the goal of phasing out separate accreditation isn't to strip St. Petersburg of its local authority. He passed along suggestions such as making sure that the planning team tasked with the transition has equal representation from the regional campuses, and ensuring that each campus would keep its individual name.
The ideas Tadlock shared largely focused on local governance and control — for instance, that leaders of the regional campuses should serve on the USF president's leadership team, and that the campus boards should remain intact, along with their power to control of their campus budget. Other ideas said that regional campuses should determine their own admissions standards and guarantee that performance-based funding is doled out equitably based on campus contributions.
Tadlock shared another idea that USF should create a College of Technology and Innovation at USFSP and help the campus acquire more property to house health and engineering programs. He reported that he's also heard a desire for more funding to support research, as well as to build pathways into USFSP and USFSM aimed at helping local students access USF.