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USF pitches plan to make St. Petersburg campus an academic ‘destination’

A new center would focus on sustainability, environmental and oceanographic studies. But creating it would cost money the university doesn’t have right now.

Leaders at the University of South Florida are proposing a major academic center on the St. Petersburg campus that would focus on sustainability, environmental and oceanographic studies.

The idea was presented in a letter last week to state Sen. Jeff Brandes from USF president Steve Currall, provost Ralph Wilcox and St. Petersburg regional chancellor Martin Tadlock. It came after Brandes and other Pinellas County political leaders expressed concern that the stature of the St. Petersburg campus was already eroding under a consolidation at USF that began July 1.

To the contrary, Currall and Wilcox wrote, the new center “represents a vision that will result in St. Petersburg becoming an international destination for student and faculty talent.”

State Sen. Jeff Brandes said USF's plan for a new academic center will tie the school's "unique offerings ... to the distinctive offerings of the St. Petersburg community."
State Sen. Jeff Brandes said USF's plan for a new academic center will tie the school's "unique offerings ... to the distinctive offerings of the St. Petersburg community." [ SHADD, DIRK | Tampa Bay Times ]

The plan, still in draft form, would bring USF’s College of Marine Sciences in St. Petersburg and its Tampa-based Patel College of Global Sustainability under one college or center in St. Petersburg. It proposes creating four “academic clusters” from other colleges with a presence on the St. Petersburg campus to support that mission. The clusters include teacher preparation in STEM education, visual and performing arts, business and health sciences.

The plan also calls for creating new degree programs and expanding existing ones over a five-year period.

For example, the risk management program currently housed in the Muma College of Business in Tampa would expand to the Kate Tiedemann School of Business and Finance in St. Petersburg. It would focus on a “blue/green economy” and coastal cities. A science journalism program would be developed in the College of Arts and Sciences, and the College of The Arts would work with community partners to create more livable communities.

Wilcox said the changes would serve the community and help USF in its aspiration to become a “top-tier” school.

“It’s incredibly exciting to me and for the University of South Florida,” he said. “This plan will not only expand degree offerings at all levels … but ultimately it will build a distinctive academic and research destination at the St. Petersburg campus.”

Brandes, an architect of consolidation and a vocal critic of how the university has handled it, said he was encouraged by the plan. The St. Petersburg Republican said he hopes it is presented to the university’s Board of Trustees and the St. Petersburg campus board.

“It all starts with a vision,” he said in an interview Friday. “What’s so exciting to me about that plan is the recognition of the unique offerings of USF tied to the distinctive offerings of the St. Petersburg community."

He said he’s hopeful the location of the campus will lead to partnerships with businesses and organizations such as Raymond James Financial, Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Florida Orchestra and the Dali Museum, among others.

“My hope is that we can create a very special university that offers students a place to learn where the business community of that region has offerings for apprenticeships, internships and, frankly, something they can’t get at any other university in the world,” Brandes said.

Last month, the senator joined other Pinellas officials in raising concerns over budgeting decisions, enrollment declines and other developments that made it appear the St. Petersburg campus was not faring well under USF’s consolidation, which Brandes helped push through the Legislature. The letter from Currall and Wilcox follows a meeting Brandes had with the two top administrators recently.

Tadlock, the regional chancellor, said the plan is something that has been discussed for years, well before consolidation.

“Sustainability has always been one of the core pillars of the institution,” he said. “That’s always been here. ...This is something that just seems to naturally be a part of who we are. It seems to be a natural fit for the city and the campus.”

But the specifics, Wilcox said, still need to be worked out in discussions with deans, faculty and other staff.

USF provost Ralph Wilcox said the university will be looking to "our friends and partners in the St. Pete community" to help establish a new academic center on the St. Petersburg campus. [JAMES BORCHUCK   |   Times]
USF provost Ralph Wilcox said the university will be looking to "our friends and partners in the St. Pete community" to help establish a new academic center on the St. Petersburg campus. [JAMES BORCHUCK | Times]

It will also require money. And in a year, where the university has already cut 61 positions and is aiming to cut close to $37 million from its budget before the next fiscal year, that could be a challenge. Wilcox said the funds could come from a reallocation of resources, state funding secured by local lawmakers and university fundraising.

“We’ll look to our friends and partners in the St. Pete community to step up and become champions of this expansion and growth,” he said.

Wilcox added: “I think we’ve got the makings of something very, very special here that will yield significant dividends for the community in St. Petersburg and Pinellas County for generations to come.”

Tadlock said the university doesn’t have a timeline for the plan just yet.

“This just doesn’t happen out of thin air,” he said. “These things take time. ... It’s a time where we have to get through the pandemic, we have to get through the budget difficulties we’re experiencing to be able to move forward.”

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