More details could emerge today on USF’s plans to consolidate

As the University of South Florida takes another step toward consolidation, school leaders hear from 20 Pinellas County public officials, urging them to preserve treasured aspects of the St. Petersburg campus.
The University Student Center at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg will be the site of Tuesday’s meeting of the USF Board of Trustees. The board will discuss USF’s consolidation plans. [Times (2013)]
The University Student Center at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg will be the site of Tuesday’s meeting of the USF Board of Trustees. The board will discuss USF’s consolidation plans. [Times (2013)]
Published December 4 2018

The public is expected to get a clearer view of the University of South Florida’s plans to consolidate when the school’s board of trustees meets today in St. Petersburg, but many issues won’t be settled until later.

University officials for months have pointed to the meeting as a significant juncture as USF decides on the details of merging three separately accredited campuses into a single institution. Many have said leaders must balance that task with preserving what makes each now-independent location special.

Days before the meeting, 20 Pinellas County public officials sent a letter to USF, outlining the St. Petersburg campus' strengths, and urging USF leaders to preserve its autonomy and partnerships. The entire County Commission and St. Petersburg City Council signed, among others. But not everyone agrees.

The letter was premature, State Rep. Wengay Newton said in an interview Monday. He declined to sign the letter when asked.

"Some of the issues they talk about in the letter, they have no knowledge of," Newton said. "I think a lot of the people who signed that letter never even spoke to the committee making decisions. … They've never showed up to a meeting."

Documents for Tuesday's meeting, which will mark USF trustees' first look at consolidation plans, include a presentation by USF-hired consultant group Huron. It celebrates "significant progress" by USF's Consolidation Implementation Committee. But the plans provided on a school website lend little specific information, including how USF St. Petersburg will fare once consolidation is complete.

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Trustees and the public will have to "hold tight" on particulars until February, when the committee's final report is due to trustees, committee chairman Jonathan Ellen said in an interview Monday. Most of the group's work so far has been gathering community input.

"We've been able to hear what they have had to say and synthesize it into the beginnings of an approach," said Ellen, who is president and CEO of Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital. "We have a good general sense of the important areas that we need to focus on."

Some decisions about consolidation have been made already, however, including that USF's three independent faculty senates will fold into one, the presentation shows. Its bylaws will be adapted by those currently used by faculty in Tampa.

USF's general education coursework requirements will adopt Tampa's framework under consolidation, too. System-wide guidelines for tenure and promotions have been drafted, and offices for admissions, enrollment and financial aid on all campuses have been aligned, documents show.

MORE: So the USF system is consolidating. Here's what you need to know.

What will happen to USF's duplicate colleges, however, is still up in the air. The university can have only one college per subject under consolidation, and consultants have suggested business colleges in St. Petersburg and Sarasota be turned into schools to fall under the Muma College of Business in Tampa.

The letter sent by public officials warned against that. USF St. Peterburg's Kate Tiedeman College of Business is too much for the community to give up, it said.

"The new facility is an architectural jewel designed to equip students to become part of the booming business community in St. Pete and beyond," the letter said. "We strongly recommend that the (college) and its course offerings remain intact."

Others, like USF faculty member Kathleen Gibson-Dee, have voiced similar concerns. As the chancellor's assistant for strategic initiatives at USF St. Petersburg, she has seen the campus build on partnerships with local businesses like Duke Energy and Bank of America. Changing the makeup of St. Petersburg's college of business could risk those pathways that lead to jobs for students, she contends.

"We are at the heart of a city that is growing and vibrant," Gibson-Dee said at a Nov. 15 meeting regarding USF's search for a new president. "Because we are smaller and nimble, we can be an incubator for student success."

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The same is true when it comes to USF St. Petersburg's partnerships in the arts and STEM fields, the letter said, recommending that majors in each be added to curriculum there.

"Between our world-famous museums, scores of independent galleries, and well-established arts districts, it makes for an easy conclusion that an arts major should be added to the St. Petersburg campus curriculum," the letter said, adding: "We strongly recommend offering STEM majors, broadening the campus' appeal and building off St. Petersburg's thriving Innovation District."

The letter said, too, that USF leaders should ensure pathways to the university remain open for Pinellas' high school graduates.

"We are hopeful that this next chapter in USF's history includes a thriving and successful campus at USFSP," it said in closing. "When all of us work together, the future is truly brighter."

Contact Megan Reeves at [email protected] or . Follow @mareevs.