U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor is the latest public official to express concern over a proposal by the University of South Florida to phase out undergraduate programs in its College of Education.
In a letter Thursday to USF President Steve Currall and the university’s board of trustees, Castor called on them to reconsider the proposal, a budget cutting move that envisions retaining graduate programs in education. The Tampa Democrat argued that USF is the single largest provider of teachers in the state, ahead of the University of Florida and Florida State University.
“As local school superintendents, education professionals and many in the business community have expressed, the contributions of the College of Education to our school districts and the community are central to our economic vitality,” Castor wrote. “Our local school districts are our largest employers — and the Tampa Bay area is growing. We must guarantee a strong, continued USF pipeline of the highest quality teaching professionals.”
Castor wrote that when she heard about the proposal, which is projected to save $7 million over two years, she asked her staff to compile a list of federal grants to the College of Education. Over the last decade, she said, it has won over $34 million, and the combination of undergraduate and graduate programs have been critical to that.
Castor also reassured USF that financial help is on the way. The university says it needs to streamline its budget by $93 million over two years.
“The Congress has passed several economic emergency aid packages this year and another is on the way that will hopefully provide robust resources for the State of Florida, colleges and universities to avoid draconian cuts such as your decision to scale back the USF College of Education,” she wrote.
Despite criticism from local education leaders and stakeholders, including Castor’s mother and former USF president Betty Castor, university administrators have doubled down on the proposal while insisting they will not abandon teacher training.
They said the decision is not final and they plan more robust conversations in the community. And they called the proposal a “reimagination” of the college, saying it was a response to sharp enrollment declines over the last decade.
University spokesman Adam Freeman echoed those points in a statement Thursday. “To be very clear, the University of South Florida has not made final decisions regarding the College of Education and no undergraduate programs in the college have been eliminated,” he said in an email.
But faculty in the College of Education say they remain unclear on the path ahead and are calling for greater transparency from USF’s top leaders.
In a letter Tuesday to the Faculty Senate Executive Committee, faculty members wrote that they were informed of the proposal during the last five minutes of a 30-minute meeting with the provost. They said they were told that the college would not be continuing its search for a dean, would stop offering undergraduate degrees, would morph into a graduate school in a different college and would receive a 35.7 percent budget cut.
They called the announcement “shocking,” saying the fact that it was made without consultation is “unheard of” in higher education.
“With the announcement, we were given no guidance as to concrete next steps or procedures to navigate such a dramatic elimination of nearly half of the college’s programs and erasure of a core identity of a founding college of the University of South Florida,” the letter said. “In addition, USF did not prepare messaging or press releases to inform our students, alumni, and community partners.”
The letter states that leaders in the college and the college’s own communication staff were blindsided by the announcement, and that many stakeholders found out through media outlets or social media posts.
They also stated they are receiving mixed messages on how concrete the plans are.
State Sen. Jeff Brandes said in an interview last week he too was concerned about the prospect of ending the college’s undergraduate programs.
“I think a public university with an urban core must offer an education degree inside the university,” he said. “I can’t see the Legislature allowing the university to withdraw from undergraduate education without severe consequences.”