The best the University of South Florida St. Petersburg can hope for under consolidation — to retain autonomy over budgets, curriculum and hiring — was signed into law Monday by Gov. Ron DeSantis.
The language requiring the USF system to designate its St. Petersburg and Sarasota locations as “branch” campuses was tucked inside a sweeping education bill (HB 7071) that expands vocational and technical training statewide.
As "branch" campuses, the two smaller sites will retain more self-governance when consolidated with USF Tampa in 2020 to create a single institution.
“We’re very pleased with the budget and language decisions made this legislative session that support our campus priorities of research infrastructure and enhanced student success,” USF St. Petersburg chancellor Martin Tadlock said Tuesday.
“Those decisions are an acknowledgement of the progress we have made and a vote of confidence in the work we are doing.”
The law solidifies a recommendation by the university’s consolidation task force in February — a proposal contested by those who favored giving USF Tampa full control. Its approval addresses the concerns of others who worried about the alternative, being designated as “instructional sites” would leave St. Petersburg and Sarasota with far less autonomy and disrupt the progress they had made on their own.
For months, Tadlock, other university leaders and political figures in St. Petersburg and Sarasota pushed for the branch campus model, saying it’s the only way their institutions can continue the work they’re doing now as fully independent institutions.
Students and faculty chimed in, too, saying the existing level of autonomy has allowed the campuses to build community support and establish partnerships that helped each thrive.
U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist, D-St. Petersburg, took the same stance in February, calling branch campuses the “only logical and appropriate choice.”
State Rep. Chris Sprowls, a Palm Harbor Republican who sponsored legislation last year that forced USF consolidation, supported the bill for branch campuses during this session.
It “ensures the continued growth of USF as a preeminent state university whose distinct regional campuses strengthen and enhance USF’s academic and cultural brand,” he said in a text message.
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History professor and author Ray Arsenault, president of the USF St. Petersburg faculty senate, said USF system leaders appeared to be “ignoring the bill” in recent weeks, even after it was unanimously passed by both chambers of the Legislature in May.
That attitude left Arsenault and others in St. Petersburg “discouraged and concerned,” he said. Hearing the news Tuesday was a welcome surprise.
While he was pleased the governor signed it into law, Arsenault said he will still be cautious in his optimism. If it were up to him, lawmakers would have repealed last year’s legislation that required consolidation in the first place.
“I think this gives us a proverbial hand hold on the cliff, so that we’ve got the chance to maybe have some control over the decisions that affect our lives and the students’ lives,” he said. “I fear that if we didn’t have it, we would have no way to stop this really intense consolidation.”