The latest on USF consolidation: Smaller campuses will keep what they have

A new proposal also aims to strengthen programs at the university’s St. Petersburg and Sarasota locations.
The University of South Florida revealed a new plan for the school's consolidation Thursday morning. Unlike the first plan presented in September, it promises a high level of authority to leaders on campuses in St. Petersburg, shown here, and Sarasota. [SCOTT KEELER   |   Times]
The University of South Florida revealed a new plan for the school's consolidation Thursday morning. Unlike the first plan presented in September, it promises a high level of authority to leaders on campuses in St. Petersburg, shown here, and Sarasota. [SCOTT KEELER | Times]
Published Oct. 17, 2019|Updated Oct. 17, 2019

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ST. PETERSBURG — After months of tedious and sometimes turbulent planning, the University of South Florida has revealed a new consolidation plan that has united leaders across the school’s three campuses.

In a major shift from the first proposal, presented last month by USF’s new president Steve Currall, the new framework promises that the regional chancellors leading campuses in St. Petersburg and Sarasota will retain authority over academics, budgets and hiring.

Those officials were set to lose much of their oversight and be forced to yield to leaders on the larger Tampa campus under Currall’s initial plan, which took harsh criticism from students, faculty, community members and Florida lawmakers who ordered USF to consolidate last year.

Many urged the president to reconsider what he called a “preliminary framework,” arguing that eroding local leadership would disrupt the upward trajectory of USF’s smaller campuses and hurt the university as a whole. Some legislators said the plan didn’t agree with what is outlined in state law and threatened to step in if Currall didn’t change course.

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

That’s when the president brought regional chancellors Martin Tadlock, who leads the St. Petersburg campus, and Karen Holbrook, who heads the Sarasota location, deeper into the process. State Rep. Chris Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor, who led the effort to consolidate USF, got more engaged, too, the university said.

Under the new plan, Tadlock and Holbrook will have direct reporting lines to Currall as members of his executive cabinet. And Sprowls is praising the university for a proposal that “reflects the will of the Legislature.”

All four officials met with the Tampa Bay Times Thursday to explain the plan, marking the biggest milestone and most united front in the consolidation process so far. Though a more refined version is expected to come before trustees Dec. 3, what came to light this week is the public’s best view yet of how the university might operate once consolidated next summer.

Tadlock said it’s the first time in more than a year that he has been hopeful about what the process will mean for his campus in St. Petersburg. He thanked Currall, who took the president’s post just four months ago, for listening to pleas by himself and others.

“He wanted to hear what was out here in the community,” Tadlock said of Currall. “He wanted to hear the voices and ... what we said were the major concerns that people had, and then he wanted us to help him understand how to address them. That invitational kind of attitude has made a huge difference."

READ: Joint letter to the USF community

READ: Details of the latest consolidation plan

When the Legislature required USF to consolidate its three campuses, which are now separate universities operating under the same brand, most specifics were left to school leaders. Then as planning began, longtime USF president Judy Genshaft announced her retirement.

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During interviews for the job and on his first visits to each campus, Currall promised to value input from all sides through consolidation. He talked about finding “synergies” between USF’s three locations, and elevating the strengths each boasts.

The new proposal, shared with students and faculty via email Thursday, falls in line with those comments. It calls for investment in strong, existing programs — like marine science and journalism in St. Petersburg, and aging studies in Sarasota — to establish “centers of excellence" that might grow to be nationally recognized.

At the same time, it quiets fears that programs would be taken away from St. Petersburg and Sarasota and instead describes a more equal distribution of academic offerings across all USF campuses through “multi-campus colleges," which will share curriculum and faculty.

Students could, for example, earn a degree in finance from any campus, and oversight of that program would be shared. The plan suggests new options for nursing, architecture and engineering students on the smaller campuses, too.

“I think what the students will actually see in it is that there’s going to be a lot more opportunity for them, no matter what campus they’re on,” Holbrook said. “The opportunities are much, much greater.”

The new plan will make boundaries between the campuses “more permeable,” Currall said, allowing for collaboration between students and faculty. That is a big plus for Sarasota, Holbrook said, where there are only a few professors for each academic discipline.

More communication lines will open up between USF educators, she added, and that will help those interested in research to share resources and gain access to bigger grants. The setup is sure to help USF recruit talented faculty, Currall said, because candidates will have more options and opportunity.

Tadlock and Holbrook will continue working as the university’s “eyes and ears” in St. Petersburg and Sarasota by keeping tabs on local workforce and research needs, according to the plan. Each year, they will use that information to build a campus-based budget, which will first go before their campus advisory boards, then on to Currall, who will build them into USF’s master budget.

The regional chancellors also will manage recruitment and hiring, as well as evaluations of faculty and student support services, like academic advising, mental health counseling and financial aid. They will report directly to the president on all administrative matters, the plan says.

The St. Petersburg Downtown Partnership, which has been critical of previous consolidation proposals, expressed support for the new plan Thursday. In a statement, the group said the plan "will safeguard the unique campus identity” at the city’s USF site.

“We thank president Currall for his efforts,” the statement said. “We also appreciate leaders from academia, business and government — especially the Pinellas County Legislative Delegation — who have contributed ideas to the revised plan."

There are still some details to work out before Dec. 3, when Currall is expected to present a final plan that will include more specifics about course offerings and curriculum, as well as on how department heads communicate with deans.

Trustees are not required to vote on its approval. However, a final plan must be submitted by March 15 to the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges, which will vote to approve it in June so USF can officially consolidate in July.

Ending the meeting Thursday, Sprowls said the move toward consolidation had been a “long and arduous process.” He thanked Tadlock and Holbrook, then Currall for many hours they spent listening to the community surrounding USF.

“All of that work, particularly with a new president who’s been here four months ... really bodes well for the future of the university,” Sprowls said.