USF consolidation is hurting St. Petersburg campus, Pinellas leaders say

Complaints from city leaders draw a response, and help, from Sen. Jeff Brandes and Rep. Chris Sprowls.
The University Student Center on Sixth Avenue South is at the center of the USF St. Petersburg campus, which, according to city officials, is not faring well under the university's consolidation.
The University Student Center on Sixth Avenue South is at the center of the USF St. Petersburg campus, which, according to city officials, is not faring well under the university's consolidation. [ MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times ]
Published Oct. 13, 2020|Updated Oct. 14, 2020

Tensions are flaring up again over the University of South Florida’s consolidation efforts, with renewed criticism that school officials are eroding the status of the St. Petersburg campus.

St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman has complained in recent days of declining enrollment, a lack of access for minority students, efforts to undermine the campus’ independence through the budget process, even the school’s new name.

Since USF began operating as a consolidated university on July 1 after an extensive approval process, the university has been referring to its St. Petersburg location as a “campus.” Under state law, the mayor contends, it should be known as USF St. Petersburg. The new moniker shows a lack of respect, he said.

“To be a major city, you look around the country, and most major cities all have a major university presence in their city,” Kriseman said in an interview Tuesday. “We have that, and it’s being taken away from us.”

He also made his feelings known in a letter Friday to State Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, who worked with State Rep. Chris Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor, to pass the 2018 legislation mandating that USF’s three separately accredited universities be consolidated into a single entity.

“While consolidation was unwelcome and presented new challenges, I was hopeful that (USF St. Petersburg) would continue to thrive so long as the letter of the new law was followed,” Kriseman wrote to Brandes. “My hope is now waning. I strongly encourage you and your colleagues in the Florida Legislature to either hold the USF board of trustees accountable or file legislation unwinding the consolidation."

Brandes said in an interview that he shared concerns that USF’s Tampa campus is seeing most of the fruits of consolidation at the expense of its other locations.

“We have seen them quietly try to discuss bringing all the budgets under one roof and we have fought back pretty dramatically," Brandes said. "We have seen enrollment decline (in St. Petersburg) and we have expressed our concerns, but I think the larger concern is that they aren’t following the spirit of what the Legislature has directed them to do.”

Sprowls has tried to intervene, tweeting on Monday that he and Brandes spoke to USF leaders, including the trustees, and came away with a commitment that the number of incoming freshmen would climb back to 650, where it was before admission standards were changed for consolidation purposes.

This fall, the number had fallen significantly. According to USF spokesman Adam Freeman, under consolidation, students are now admitted to USF and can designate which campus they select as their home campus. This fall, 157 newly admitted freshman designated St. Petersburg as their home campus. An additional 261 started over the summer, for a total of 418.

The total student population in St. Petersburg this fall is 3,878 — down from 4,170 in 2017.

Ed Montanari, chairman of the St. Petersburg City Council, said the issue came to his attention when USF regional chancellor Martin Tadlock briefed council members about a month ago.

“It is a problem for the city,” Montanari said. “We want USF St. Petersburg to thrive. It’s such a beautiful campus and they’ve got so many good programs there and a lot to offer.”

Montanari said he’s glad Brandes and Sprowls are involved, but added he’s not sure if USF’s trustees are aware of the extent of it.

Sprowls, the incoming speaker of the Florida House, said the enrollment declines in St. Petersburg were part of the growing pains of consolidation.

“Prior to consolidation, a degree from USF Tampa and a degree from USF St. Petersburg, even though they both have USF on it, did not mean the same thing,” he said. “One campus had a higher academic standard than the other, so the degrees were not created equal. So part of consolidation was to make sure that if a student is educated at a USF campus, regardless of what campus they graduate from, that degree should mean the same thing, which now it does. I think it’s part of the process.”

The St. Petersburg campus historically admitted a higher proportion of transfer students, a group that also included a higher proportion of Black and Latino students. Enrollment in the State College System has also dipped, and their numbers reflect that too, according to Tadlock.

Specifics on how to grow enrollment and attract a more diverse pool of students will be discussed at a meeting of the Campus Board in St. Petersburg next Thursday.

In a statement Tuesday, USF president Steve Currall said the university plans to keep elected officials updated.

Because of consolidation, he said, students were already benefiting from USF’s standing as a preeminent research university.

“As we continue to navigate the complexities of consolidating our three campuses, our focus is on balancing state law with the plan approved in June by our accrediting agency," the statement said. "We remain committed to maintaining the unique identity of each USF campus as we work together with the communities we serve in Tampa, St. Petersburg and Sarasota-Manatee to strengthen our position as one of the nation’s premier research universities and a leader in student success.”

Brandes said he and Sprowls intend to stay closely involved in the issue.

“I think what you’re going to see is a heightened focus over the next few years on stabilizing all three campuses, ensuring we have the correct leadership and board membership in place and then growing the university’s stature and prominence in the state of Florida,” he said. “We can’t leave behind any campus.”