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USF president reveals where he stands on consolidation — and worries remain

Under a preliminary plan by president Steve Currall, USF’s three campuses would share some roles. But academic decisions would be based in Tampa.

TAMPA — The public on Tuesday got its best look so far at how the University of South Florida might be organized once its three now-separate campuses consolidate as a single institution next summer.

USF president Steve Currall laid out a plan for university trustees that shows some shared leadership and curricular offerings across those locations. But as many faculty feared, it strips administrators on the St. Petersburg and Sarasota campuses of power to make decisions about academics — forcing them to yield to leaders in Tampa.

Currently, regional chancellors in St. Petersburg and Sarasota manage faculty hiring and academic program budgets while also serving as community liaisons in their respective communities.

Under Currall’s plan, the chancellors would lean further into the latter role, prioritizing fundraising and university partnerships, while academic management falls to USF Provost Ralph Wilcox, who is based on the larger Tampa campus.

The president’s presentation built up mounting concerns among some faculty who have feared consolidation could force USF’s smaller campuses to give up the high level of autonomy that has helped them thrive as separately accredited institutions.

Florida lawmakers who ordered consolidation last year addressed those concerns in May, unanimously passing legislation that requires USF’s consolidation plan to include St. Petersburg and Sarasota as “branch" campuses.

RELATED: Florida lawmakers support “branch” campuses at USF

The term is defined by accrediting authorities as campuses that are in charge of their own budgeting and hiring, but it is unclear whether that includes all budgets — academic and otherwise.

Currall says it doesn’t, and that his plan fully meets the branch campus requirement because chancellors will continue to oversee budgets and hiring for non-academic matters, like campus upkeep and emergency management.

Longtime USF professor Ray Arsenault, who has been vocal about consolidation concerns as president of the St. Petersburg faculty senate, said Currall’s logic is flawed and does not meet the branch campus requirement Gov. Ron DeSantis signed into law June 24.

“This is contradictory to the ... legislation passed this year,” he said. “It guts the meaning of it and really is a defiance of the legislators."

RELATED: USF St. Petersburg hopes for the best as a “branch” campus

Arsenault called Currall’s proposal disappointing in that it “takes away almost all academic authority” from leaders on his campus who have made great strides in recent years. The plan would put St. Petersburg in “serious jeopardy,” he said, “because everything will go through Tampa.”

St. Petersburg regional chancellor Martin Tadlock also voiced concern in an interview following Currall’s presentation, pointing to better student retention rates and increased research spending under his leadership.

He said he expects continued concern among faculty on his campus, due to the lack of local academic leadership in Currall’s plan.

“That’s a big question mark,” Tadlock said. “Someone on every campus has to have responsibility and be accountable for academic affairs.”

In an interview after the presentation, Currall confirmed that his plan would change the level of “academic authority” regional chancellors have, and therefore the role they play for the university. But he said he has ideas about how to make sure the administrators still have input in hiring.

“They will have a voice and a role,” the president told trustees, adding that as community liaisons, the regional chancellors would be welcome to advise deans and the provost about local educational needs.

The manner in which that would happen has not yet been determined. But Currall told trustees he understands the importance of local academic leadership and is working to create “formal mechanisms" for regional chancellors to communicate with other leaders on academic matters.

Currall stressed that his plan is only a “preliminary blueprint” for USF’s future. Nothing is set in stone, he said, and he plans to continue meeting with faculty and the regional chancellors to work out problems.

Trustees had few questions about Currall’s presentation, other than about timing for implementation. Chairman Jordan Zimmerman praised what he described as the president’s hard work and transparency.

A final draft of the plan is due Nov. 1, and trustees will vote to approve it a month later. The plan is due in March to the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges, which will vote to approve it in June so that USF can officially consolidate in July.

“We are on a journey here,” Currall said at the end of his presentation. “We are making fantastic progress, but we still have some milestones coming up."