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USF gets green light to consolidate, a ‘historic milestone’

An effort begun two years ago to bring USF’s campuses under one umbrella gets the OK. The move is official on July 1.

A two-year process to consolidate the University of South Florida “system” into a single university has cleared its last major hurdle.

The school announced Friday that its consolidation plan has been approved by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges, an accrediting organization whose input was required under state law in order for the change to go through.

USF President Steve Currall called it a “historic milestone,” and the last big step before USF sites in Tampa, St. Petersburg and Sarasota start operating as a single university on July 1.

For years, USF St. Petersburg and USF Sarasota-Manatee have operated as separately accredited universities. Supporters of consolidation argued that placing them under a single accreditation with USF in Tampa will allow students on all of the campuses to share in the prestige, extra funding and other benefits that come with USF’s status as a “preeminent” university in Florida.

After the Legislature mandated the move in 2018, early proposals were met by resistance from many students, faculty, staff and sometimes lawmakers who feared that too much power would fall to USF decision-makers in Tampa. Many also argued that the local campuses would lose the unique identities that had made them successful.

Currall, however, was able to steer the proposal in ways that addressed many of those fears.

The proposal approved by the Southern Association stated that USF St. Petersburg and USF Sarasota-Manatee had been unable as separate institutions to access money flowing to USF from a state funding formula that rewards preeminent universities.

While some feared consolidation would cut costs and do away with local campus leaders, the proposal said, “the legislative intent is to expand access and opportunities" for students and faculty across all campuses.

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

Under consolidation, some colleges will have programs and faculty on more than one campus but each "overarching disciplinary area” would fall under one college, led by one college dean.

Each dean will be a member of a council of deans that reports to the USF Provost. The Provost’s Academic Leadership team will be expanded to include regional chancellors of the branch campuses.

The plan states consolidation is not expected to reduce the number or the percentage of full-time faculty, though organizational and department structures may change. “Currently employed faculty are expected to remain with the consolidated institution,” the plan states.

Ray Arsenault, president of the faculty senate at USF St. Petersburg and an early critic of consolidation efforts, said faculty on the campus are somewhat resigned to the decision.

“We fought like crazy to retain some level of autonomy and identity,” he said. “We got more than we feared we’d get. ... We had serious research, small classes. We did everything we were supposed to do, but we didn’t always meet the metrics and make the numbers go the way they were supposed to go.”

According to the plan, a new set of unified guidelines for tenure will be adopted for the university that “set higher expectations for scholarly productivity for faculty" formerly at the smaller campuses. Those faculty members had higher teaching and service workloads than faculty at USF Tampa, but lower research workloads, the plan said.

As departments on branch campuses are disbanded and faculty are spread out, Arsenault said he hopes to see the promised benefits of consolidation come to fruition.

Still, he said, there is work to be done in salary equity. He said he is aware of faculty at branch campuses making $20,000 to $30,000 less than than comparable colleagues at the Tampa campus.

As a final step in the process, the Southern Association will visit all three USF campuses and the Morsani College of Medicine in the next few months to assure the school lives up to what it promised in its plan. After that, by the end of next year, the agency is expected to again review how consolidation is going.