TAMPA — The University of South Florida announced Wednesday it will continue to offer some undergraduate programs in its College of Education, reversing a decision that drew strong criticism last fall from local school leaders.
The announcement followed months of confusion after university officials announced during an October faculty meeting a proposal to eliminate undergraduate programs and house the college, with some graduate programs, in a different part of the university. The move was said to be part of university wide budget cuts, but local educators and other officials immediately raised concerns that it would eliminate a major training ground for Tampa Bay area school districts that recruit thousands of new teachers every year.
A letter Wednesday from USF provost Ralph Wilcox and interim education dean Judith Ponticell said the college, which has faced dwindling enrollment in recent years, would detail how it planned to meet its fiscal responsibilities at a budget meeting Friday.
“During the past few months USF has been deeply engaged in conversations about how to best align our precious financial resources with our strategic aspirations as a university,” the letter said. “Of particular interest have been conversations about the future of the College of Education, and we have been greatly impressed by the level of support for maintaining a strong presence for the college now and into the future.”
The college also will resume its nationwide search for a permanent dean amid a hiring freeze that attempts to cut more than $36 million from the university’s budget next year.
Mike Grego, superintendent of Pinellas County Schools and president of the state superintendents association, said he was thrilled by the announcement. Grego had been a vocal critic of the plan to do away with undergraduate education programs, calling the decision a “terrible mistake” in an op-ed he penned with other school district leaders.
Since then, Grego said, school district leaders have had weekly conversations with the university. He said he believes USF officials have grown to understand their role in the area’s education ecosystem.
Education “is one of the main cornerstones of a community,” Grego said. “We need the university and we need outstanding graduates for a strong school system.”
He said much of the hard work lies ahead as the university decides which programs to keep and what they will look like. The initial proposal was to have saved $6.8 million.
Addison Davis, superintendent of Hillsborough County schools, praised university leaders for listening and creating the opportunity for regular dialogue with school district leaders.
“Overall, everyone is trying to make it through some trying times, financially,” he said. “Hats off to them. They could have backed away, and they didn’t.”
Kurt Browning, superintendent of Pasco County schools and a two-time graduate of USF, said the College of Education provided about 30 percent of the county’s new hires. Amid a teacher shortage, he said, ending undergraduate programs would have been devastating.
“They are a major player in the greater Tampa Bay community,” he said of the university. “I’m very pleased that the university has made the decision to keep the College of Education intact. They have been receptive to conversations with superintendents and, to their credit, they did not assume the defensive.”
Art Shapiro, president of the USF faculty union and a faculty member in the College of Education, said he was delighted that undergraduate programs were being retained.
“We need undergraduate education,” he said. “We turn out a lot of graduates needed in the community.”
Still, he said, faculty remain worried about the bleak budget situation ahead.
Matt O’Brien, a doctoral student and one of the organizers of Save the COE, a group which held student protests to preserve the college, said he remains optimistic that the USF board of trustees will make decisions to preserve the university’s integrity during what he hopes is a temporary situation.
“The real issue lies in the lack of funding from the Senate and House of Representatives in Tallahassee,” he said.
The letter from USF said the decisions in the months to come will be made with community input.
“Financial reduction decisions are never easy, and this year especially has brought complexities and challenges unlike anything we have ever experienced,” the letter said. “Through this process, we have listened, and we have learned. As we continue to make responsible decisions in the months to come, we need the support and trust of our community.”