As the University of South Florida System starts down the long road to consolidation, it will lean on the guidance of a task force whose leader was appointed Monday.
Dr. Jonathan Ellen, a well-known community leader as president and vice dean of Johns Hopkins All Children's Hospital in St. Petersburg, will take on the role of chairman. He was appointed by the Board of Governors, which oversees the 12 public universities of Florida.
The task force will have a hefty workload as it develops recommendations for the complex merger, which is being mandated under a new law.
USF St. Petersburg and USF Sarasota-Manatee, which have for years operated as regional universities under the USF System umbrella, will have their separate accreditations phased out. They will become campuses of a single, unified USF — a controversial prospect in certain corners of Pinellas County, where leaders clearly recall the days when they had to scrap with USF officials in Tampa for resources.
As a litany of leaders in St. Petersburg made their distrust known this winter, Dr. Ellen wrote a letter making a public case for the merger. As USF Tampa's reputation and research rise, it would benefit St. Petersburg and Sarasota to share that preeminence, rather than holding the schools separate, he said.
A merger would boost St. Petersburg's research capacities and ability to recruit top faculty and post-doctoral students, Ellen wrote. And it would give students more opportunities in a broader array of programs.
"The pathway to consolidation must be traveled carefully and thoughtfully and developed over a two-year period by content experts and stakeholders," Ellen wrote. He said the plan must address self-governance and protections in St. Petersburg, as well as funding and support for doctoral programs and student recruitment. And he addressed the "historical distrust" between the communities.
"There is the widely held perception that USF Tampa failed to adequately invest in the academic development of the St. Petersburg campus," he wrote. "However, in the present, an unintended consequence of the separation is that USF St. Petersburg could be left behind by USF Tampa once again when USF Tampa receives its preeminent status."
On Monday, Board of Governors members praised Ellen's hospital leadership.
Said Ned Lautenbach, chair of the board: "He will play a critical role in ensuring that USF's transition happens smoothly and efficiently and that it further improves service to students."
In a news release, Ellen reiterated some of his earlier points, saying that consolidation will reduce barriers for students and faculty and will improve "recruitment and retention of students from all backgrounds."
"The result of the enhanced integration should elevate the innovative and scholarly impact of USF on the Tampa Bay region and country," he said.
Ellen has transformed Johns Hopkins All Children's Hospital "from a regional referral center to a pediatric academic health system and national leader in research, teaching and patient care," the release said.
It noted his achievements in recruitment and research, such as the soon-to-be-opened $95 million pediatric research and education building in downtown St. Petersburg, and a new pediatric residency program. Ellen has also worked with USF Health leaders.
The task force must give a list of recommendations to USF trustees by mid-February, 2019. For more on their responsibilities, see here.