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Lawmakers tell USF: Rework your consolidation plan or we will

They say the proposal by USF president Steve Currall conflicts with a new Florida law by giving too much authority to the Tampa campus.

State lawmakers are frustrated and calling for changes after seeing a preliminary plan for consolidating the University of South Florida’s three campuses.

They say the proposal, outlined this week by USF president Steve Currall, conflicts with Florida law because it shifts authority over academics from campuses in St. Petersburg and Sarasota to the school’s central offices in Tampa.

The plan confirms fears long held by USF faculty and community members who worry consolidation will take autonomy away from the regional campuses, despite Currall’s promises in recent months that it won’t. Just a month ago, he told the Tampa Bay Times those concerns were “not well-founded.”

Now, both Republicans and Democrats representing the Tampa Bay region say the president must reconsider his outline for consolidation — and some vow to step in during the upcoming legislative session if he doesn’t.

“It needs to be very clear to the leadership of USF that the Legislature will be actively engaged if they feel like the law is not being followed,” said state Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg. “We expect that the leadership of USF will revise their draft to reflect the law."

The law governing the consolidation process was approved by the Legislature in the spring session and signed June 24 by Gov. Ron DeSantis.

Asked for his response to the gathering opposition, Currall provided a statement late Friday signaling that consolidation remains a work in progress and he’s still listening.

“The intent of this framework is to provide a perspective through which we will further develop our plans,” the statement said. "As I continue with my ongoing listening tour visits, I welcome feedback and ideas from all of our stakeholders, including our faculty and students on all of our campuses, alumni, elected officials, accreditation leaders and members of our communities.

“USF’s impact stretches well beyond our campus walls, and as such it is our responsibility to ensure that our university is meeting the needs of all our communities and serves to elevate our region as a whole.”

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

Responding to critics, USF president Steve Currall said Friday the university plans to "further develop" plans for consolidation and welcomes input from everyone in the community.
Responding to critics, USF president Steve Currall said Friday the university plans to "further develop" plans for consolidation and welcomes input from everyone in the community. [ James Borchuck, Tampa Bay Times ]

Lawmakers caught wind of the worries surrounding the president’s plan at a Pinellas County Legislative Delegation meeting Thursday, where USF St. Petersburg professor Ray Arsenault urged them to push back.

“You’ve got to save us,” he told them.

Rep. Chris Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor, chairman of the delegation who led the effort to consolidate USF, declined to be interviewed, providing a statement: "Consolidation is a process and, as this process and discussion surrounding consolidation moves forward, I am confident that in the end the goal will be met.”

But Brandes, who serves as vice chairman, said Sprowls and other delegation members are “unified” against Currall’s plan. “Nothing is off the table when it comes to how the leadership of the Legislature will react if we feel like the intent of the law is not followed,” he said.

After the meeting Thursday, Rep. Ben Diamond, D-St. Petersburg, wrote Currall a letter contending that his plan “does not comport with the letter or intent" of House Bill 7071. The measure requires USF to establish its St. Petersburg and Sarasota locations as “branch campuses” that will be in control of their own budgets and hiring.

The legislation was inspired by “important recommendations” from a state-established consolidation task force at USF whose members spent months gathering input from faculty, students and community leaders across all three campuses, Diamond added.

Currall’s plan does leave regional chancellors on the smaller campuses with control over non-academic matters, like emergency plans and campus upkeep, plus asks them to do more fundraising and networking. But it strips the administrators of the ability to manage student affairs and spending related to the university’s primary function: education.

“The mission of the university is an academic mission,” Diamond said. “It only makes sense that there would be an academic authority on the branch campus.”

He pointed out in the letter that USF St. Petersburg has been successful under regional chancellor Martin Tadlock’s leadership in recent years. As a partner to local schools and businesses, the campus has been part of the city’s “remarkable renaissance," he wrote.

Shifting responsibilities to Tampa would likely hurt the ability for leaders in St. Petersburg to attract quality faculty and students to their campus, said Melissa Seixas, chairwoman of the city’s Downtown Partnership board who served on the consolidation task force.

At the same time, existing students there would be forced to speak about their education with administrators based in Tampa, said Sen. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg.

“When students have issues," Diamond said, “they want to be able to see somebody on their campus that has the authority to help them solve those problems.”

St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman said in a statement that the consolidation process has been “fraught with secrecy and politics." He added: “The officials who claimed this wasn’t about consolidating power need to back up their claims by ensuring that the law creating a true branch campus with real, not superficial authority, is implemented.”

Rep. Jennifer Webb said she expects Currall to address lawmakers’ concerns so that consolidation is implemented in accordance with Florida law. The delegation was “clear and unambiguous” about its position Thursday, she said.

“It’s his job to do what he thinks is best for USF," Webb said. “It’s the Legislature’s job to push back and say ‘No, this was the deal, and this is what is best for students.’"

Diamond’s letter to Currall asked for a meeting with USF leaders. He got a response from Mark Walsh, USF’s vice president for government relations, offering to meet next week. It is not yet clear whether the president will be there, Diamond said.

Lawmakers want to work “collaboratively and constructively” with Currall to find solution, Diamond said. But like Brandes, he is prepared to bring the issue to other state leaders if necessary.

“We want to see this law faithfully carried out and we want to see continued success at USF St. Petersburg," Diamond said. “What we all want to avoid is a situation where we’re talking with the (state’s) higher education committee about an issue with our university."