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USF trustees criticize how leaders handled College of Education plan

Board of trustees members said Tuesday they felt blindsided by the news.
University of South Florida trustees criticized school leaders over communication surrounding the College of Education.
University of South Florida trustees criticized school leaders over communication surrounding the College of Education. [ Times (2019) ]
Published Nov. 10, 2020

Administrators at the University of South Florida faced tough criticism Tuesday from USF’s board of trustees for how they released the news last month that undergraduate programs in the College of Education might be phased out.

Trustee Byron Shinn said he heard it from a donor to the college and couldn’t believe it. He said he had to call university leaders to confirm it.

“I understand we’re not closing down the college, however, I’m upset about process and I’m upset about communication,” Shinn said during a trustees work group meeting. "How we went about this is absolutely inconsistent with the history of my board and my involvement, and I’m not pleased about it. And to be blindsided as a trustee with our community is inappropriate and unsatisfactory.”

Shinn added: “We lit up the community in a bad way. I know I caught some flak. And so did probably some of the others.”

Though the issue was not on Tuesday’s agenda, the board’s chairman, Jordan Zimmerman, asked university provost Ralph Wilcox to address it.

Wilcox said the news came after “preliminary” discussions with faculty to “re-imagine” the future of the college in light of declining undergraduate enrollment trends.

He emphasized that no decision was final and that the university would not abandon teacher education. He said USF would contribute to training future educators in other ways rather than compete with four-year degree programs from state colleges, the University of Tampa and for-profit certification programs.

He talked about a graduate school that admitted undergraduates who would study a non-educational field for the first four years but receive a master’s in education from USF.

But trustees pushed back on the way the university handled the idea and were indignant about the university’s communication efforts.

Trustee Nancy Watkins said she felt unprepared to respond to the community when approached about it. She said the idea had never come before any university board, and didn’t until Zimmerman asked the provost to address it Tuesday.

“I think we need to consider our impact on the community,” she said. “And if it doesn’t fit into our strategic plan, I think we need to reconsider if our strategic plan is correct."

Watkins asked if the university was still admitting undergraduates for education degrees, considering that the plans weren’t final. Wilcox said it was, and that it would be inappropriate and premature to do otherwise.

But Watkins said the messaging in Tuesday’s meeting differed from public comments she had read and the general community perception. That included op-eds from local school superintendents and a response from university administrators.

“Everything I’m hearing today is in total conflict with everything I’ve heard before,” she said. “I hear this word ‘re-imagine’ over and over. We’re going to ‘re-imagine’ the bachelor’s degree. Re-imagine has one definition in that context and it’s to get rid of it.”

Two trustees defended the possibility of eliminating undergraduate programs.

Trustee Les Muma warned the board not to step into management roles.

“I just think we need to be careful on putting a challenge in front of the university and telling them they can’t do it that way," he said. "Maybe the right thing to do is to appeal to the state to fund this four-year baccalaureate program, so we can survive without hurting our budget.”

Currall reaffirmed the university would have more “robust” conversations with the community and other stakeholders, but that the statements made were “evidence-based.”

Zimmerman encouraged the board to keep the conversation positive, but asked the university to consider what the demand might be for bachelor’s degrees if teacher pay is increased. He also encouraged the university to keep social responsibility in mind as a state university.

“It’s what we owe our communities," he said. ""It’s what we owe our families and what we owe our students.”