From the archive: USF St. Petersburg's long journey to autonomy

A view of the USF St. Petersburg campus from Sixth Avenue S. [SCOTT KEELER   |   Times]
A view of the USF St. Petersburg campus from Sixth Avenue S. [SCOTT KEELER | Times]
Published Jan. 17, 2018

As the Florida Legislature considers undoing the current governance of the University of South Florida by folding the three branches of its system into one entity, here is a look at some Times coverage of the long-running struggle for independence at one of those branches — USF St. Petersburg. The effort stretches back more than 25 years.

Feb. 16, 2007: Tensions arise over USF control

June 24, 2006: USF St. Petersburg finally independent

Feb. 11, 2004: USF St. Petersburg gains new authority

• • •

May 29, 2000:

Growth is a big debate for USF


Times Staff Writer

Judy Genshaft intends to spend her first afternoon as University of South Florida president asking Pinellas County leaders what her school is doing wrong in St. Petersburg.

She wants to hear why there seems to be little trust in Tampa administrators. She says she needs to know before the Legislature tries again to dismember the regional campuses of the university she will begin running this summer.

"There has obviously been some sort of communications gap," said Genshaft, who already has heard enough to convince her that she must grow all of USF's branches if she wants to keep them, especially the 46-acre campus in St. Petersburg's Bayboro Harbor.

That commitment, coming six weeks before Genshaft arrives in Tampa, is another indication of how much the ground has shifted in the contentious debate over the future of USF-St. Petersburg.

Officials on both sides of Tampa Bay agree the issue no longer is whether the campus should expand. The key questions now, they say, are how quickly it should grow and whether that will happen under USF's auspices or as an independent school.

Most people credit this change in attitude to state Sen. Don Sullivan, a Pinellas County Republican who waged a fierce assault on USF's regional system during the recent legislative session.

He almost succeeded in pushing through a bill that would have severed the St. Petersburg and Sarasota campuses from USF and made them into new state universities.

Though his attempt died on the session's last day, Sullivan did secure approval for a study of how to make higher education more accessible in Florida. He expects it to show that Pinellas and Sarasota residents, at least, would be better served by institutions separate from USF.

Some have speculated that Sullivan is using the study to pressure the university into making further concessions in Pinellas County.

Not true, he says.

"This is not an implied threat. It is a real threat," said Sullivan, who thinks USF is too Tampa-centric to provide Pinellas or Sarasota residents with adequate access to undergraduate degrees.

"I think I could get this passed," he said. "And I'm confident the governor would sign it."

A real college town?

USF officials say that would be a mistake. Last week, they began pressing prominent Pinellas supporters to help them keep the St. Petersburg campus under USF's umbrella.

They promised to increase undergraduate enrollment more than twice as fast as on the Tampa campus. They said they already have loosened restrictions that prevented St. Petersburg from accepting part-time students as freshmen.

By 2002, they said, the St. Petersburg campus could have as many as 400 freshmen and sophomores, or more than four times the current total.

Although an improvement, no one expects those changes to placate Sullivan, who helped secure $4.2-million during the session to pay for the additional students and create new degree programs.

The changes don't even meet the ambitions of St. Petersburg campus dean Bill Heller.

He thinks the St. Petersburg branch should develop its own, separately accredited colleges. That would allow the campus to decide what programs it wants to offer, rather than having to rely on the authorization of Tampa-based administrators.

He also wants to expand at a faster pace than what was outlined last week. During the next 10 years, Heller says, the number of full-time faculty in St. Petersburg should grow from 80 to 200, and the number of students from 3,400 to at least 6,000.

Business and political leaders love the sound of those numbers. They see the St. Petersburg campus as the next engine for downtown development.

"With that many students in the area, this could become a college town," said Martin Normile, executive vice president of the city's Downtown Development Partnership. "They would have a huge impact on the viability of downtown and on the culture of the area."

Richard Peck, USF's interim president, says he understands the dreams fueling St. Petersburg's frustrations.

But achieving them Sullivan's way, he says, would be a big mistake.

At least in the short term, an independent campus would lack accreditation, Peck said. Many of the faculty likely would leave, and the cost of operation would rise steeply, if only because the new school would have to duplicate services now provided by the Tampa campus, such as financial aid, payroll and accounting.

Privately, USF officials question Sullivan's motivations. They suggest he is acting out of pique born from his unsuccessful candidacy for the USF presidency that Genshaft got.

Sullivan says he would have made a good president and thinks he should have been seriously considered.

But even though he was twice told before he applied that he didn't have enough experience in higher-education administration and told that again after he applied anyway, Sullivan said he was not acting out of malice.

"Their decision certainly wasn't a surprise," he said. "People can say what they want, but my only concern here is making sure people can get a college degree."

A delicate position

Of all the players in this tug-of-war, none is in a more delicate position than Heller, who has run the Bayboro campus since 1992.

When he first arrived, he couldn't understand why the campus was so sleepy. On most days, three-quarters of the classrooms sit empty from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Eight years later, he still can't understand why the campus isn't better-used _ an opinion he often states publicly.

He knows that doesn't thrill his bosses in Tampa.

"My role can get uncomfortable," said Heller, who would much prefer that the St. Petersburg campus remain a part of USF, but with vastly expanded degree programs. "It's hard not to get impatient."

Heller says relations with Tampa have become better in recent years, especially since it became clear the St. Petersburg campus was in play.

He says he has had more contact with Peck in the past two months than with other USF presidents in the previous eight years. He recently was promoted to acting vice president for Pinellas operations, which gives him a direct say in how the university spends its budget.

That could help prevent some of the battles Heller has waged in recent years with Tampa administrators.

One fight was over who got to spend vending machine revenues generated in St. Petersburg. Another was over control of the profits earned at the St. Petersburg bookstore. In both instances, Heller learned after the fact that the revenues were being used for enhancements in Tampa.

Former president Betty Castor, for example, used the vending machine revenues to help recruit National Merit Scholars.

"It's hard to argue with that, except at the time we weren't allowed to accept freshmen, so we couldn't even enroll National Merit Scholars," Heller said.

He says Tampa administrators since have upped St. Petersburg's share and he has dropped his complaints.

Most of them, anyway.

He still doesn't understand why USF often forgets to include a phone number for the St. Petersburg campus in its marketing materials.

"Some things are hard to figure," he said.

A dangerous game

Yes they are, Tampa administrators say. But they point to the demands of many of the people pushing for greater independence.

Nothing ticked off USF administrators more than the list of 17 conditions put forth recently by the St. Petersburg campus advisory board.

The group said faculty promotion and tenure decisions should be made in St. Petersburg. It said campus officials should have the authority to build student housing and to create new degree programs, from undergraduate to the doctoral level.

"Should the administration of USF not move toward more autonomy for the St. Petersburg campus by January 2001, then the Campus Advisory Board will seek conversion of USF-St. Petersburg to a separate state university," wrote board chairman Michael Van Butsel.

Tampa officials said those demands simply are unrealistic. USF, for example, doesn't have the authority to create new Ph.D programs. That power belongs to the state Board of Regents.

Peck says he was surprised to learn that people think Tampa actively is trying to restrict development of the St. Petersburg campus.

The situation, he says, is much more complicated than that.

"Consider what you would have if the St. Petersburg campus is made independent," Peck said. "Students would be looking at attending an unaccredited, half a college, with no faculty, that costs more.

"It's hard to imagine how anyone can see a benefit in that."

• • •

April 9, 1990:

USF St. Petersburg seeking independence, officials want less Tampa bureacracy


Times Staff Writer

Like a teen-ager ready to face the world alone, the St. Petersburg campus of the University of South Florida is itching to wrest more independence from its Tampa parent. The campus has grown. It's experimenting with new ideas. And it's full of pent-up energy.

But campus officials say attempts to create innovative new programs in St. Petersburg are being thwarted by a Tampa bureaucracy that is reluctant to stray from traditional university standards.

"This campus, in my view, needs to be something different than a miniature version of Tampa," said Karen Spear, interim dean of the St. Petersburg campus. "I truly don't think it can become that way so long as the system of norms and assumptions and procedures that work for a major university are expected to work here."

This is not a new issue. Faculty and officials on the St. Petersburg campus have long chafed under the authoritative hand of the university's main campus.

And community leaders, who serve on the Campus Advisory Board, also have charged repeatedly that the St. Petersburg campus is treated as a stepchild.

"All of us ... believe that there's not enough authority vested in the dean of the local campus, that too many questions have to be bucked over to Tampa for a decision," said Bob Haiman, chairman of the advisory board and executive director of the Poynter Institute for Media Studies, which owns the St. Petersburg Times.

Previous attempts to gain more independence have produced few results, perhaps in part because the case was not stated strongly enough.

Now, Spear and her faculty say, the time is ripe for a new effort to rearrange the ties between St. Petersburg and Tampa. The university provost has appointed a task force to examine the roles of the regional campuses, and at least some Tampa administrators seem sympathetic to the idea of change.

A seven-page document outlining new responsibilities for officials and faculty in St. Petersburg has been forwarded to the task force and Tampa officials.

While adoption of the document would call for several major changes, Spear says it's far from radical, although some Tampa faculty are likely to view it as such.

"I don't think anybody feels that the document ... is any sort of declaration of independence or secession from the union," Spear said. "We thought it was really a fairly mild proposal for how we might work better."

Establishing a separate curriculum

Recently, when the St. Petersburg campus wanted to hire a new sociology professor, faculty here chose a few possible candidates. But faculty with the sociology department in Tampa turned them down and came up with another list.

The disagreement led to a "protracted series of negotiations," Spear said, and in the end neither side could agree. So the position remains open, and the financing for the position probably will be used in another department.

"Our candidates weren't acceptable to them and their candidates weren't acceptable to us, and we just reached a kind of standoff," Spear said.

The situation is just one example of what happens when the authority for hiring, firing and several other important campus decisions lies with deans and department chiefs in Tampa, Spear said. Tampa officials don't necessarily understand or care about what the St. Petersburg campus needs, she said.

In this case, St. Petersburg sought a professor who could teach courses and do research in several areas. But the stricter university model in which the Tampa campus operates dictated a professor who would specialize in one area, Spear said.

The problem becomes more critical when it comes to academic programs.

Under Spear's leadership, the St. Petersburg campus is seeking to innovate and offer non-traditional programs that respond to community needs. That often means interdisciplinary programs that combine faculty and courses from several areas to create a program that meets a specific need.

But authority for approving academic programs is with the chiefs of individual departments or the deans of individual colleges in Tampa. And those officials often are reluctant to approve programs that reach outside their particular area.

For instance, the campus is developing a business program for liberal arts students. The program would allow liberal arts students to take certain business courses without having to meet the strict requirements of a business major, Spear said.

Such a program would answer a need in the business community, where companies have been placing a larger emphasis on hiring graduates who have a broad educational background rather than more narrow technical training.

Another program under consideration is science writing. Majors would take liberal arts courses, such as literature and writing, as well as science courses.

It doesn't make sense for these innovative interdisciplinary programs to be approved through a specific Tampa department, which might be unfamiliar with much of what the program seeks to offer, Spear said.

Tampa department chiefs "are often very reluctant to assign their faculty to teach in an interdisciplinary program," said Danny Jorgensen, an associate professor of sociology and head of the faculty advisory committee on the St. Petersburg campus.

"In their view what matters is history or psychology or another program on this campus. Those are set up to serve students who are seeking a major in those fields," Jorgensen said. "It is difficult to convince them that faculty resources on this campus would be better sent to interdisciplinary programs that don't necessarily lead to a degree program."

Creating an across-the-bay gap

What St. Petersburg is seeking is more authority to develop its own programs and bypass the authority of the deans and department chiefs in Tampa. Under the new proposal, program coordinators here would take the place of the Tampa deans and department chiefs in reviewing new programs. The programs would be reviewed by the Undergraduate Council in Tampa before final approval by the provost.

"The college deans right now really are the people who have the bottom line responsibility for academic programs," Spear said. The campus dean in St. Petersburg "negotiates those issues with the college dean. Some college deans are more laissez faire than others. (So) ... you sort of fall back on the good graces of the dean or the nature of your working relationship.

"We have never been able to capitalize on our strengths because they're offset by so many of these odd compromises," she said.

The St. Petersburg proposal also seeks more authority for decisions on faculty tenure and promotion to be made by faculty and the campus dean in St. Petersburg. A review committee from Tampa makes tenure and promotion decisions, and the final decision is made by the provost. Spear and faculty in St. Petersburg say the review committee should include St. Petersburg faculty who are more familiar with their colleagues' work.

"As long as tenure and promotion are controlled almost exclusively by the Tampa department, it makes faculty look to Tampa for rewards and approval and limits the ability of faculty to take the initiative on this campus," Jorgensen said.

"Our faculty are afraid to participate in innovative programs and stuff over here for fear that they may be punished come tenure time or promotion time by administrators in Tampa who don't understand what that involves over here or don't value it," he said.

A threat to school's accreditation

Many faculty believe the reason St. Petersburg has never been given more autonomy boils down to a question of power. In typical bureaucratic form, the deans and department chiefs in Tampa are reluctant to relinquish control of programs or personnel to faculty in St. Petersburg, they say.

"It's a question of turf," said Charles Arnade, a professor of international relations who spends part of his time at the university's Lakeland campus. "This is an issue that has existed since the 1970s and has never been solved satisfactorily. It's a question of power."

But university provost Gerry Meisels says deeper concerns underlie the reluctance to give the St. Petersburg campus more independence. Meisels is concerned that an autonomous St. Petersburg campus would threaten accreditation.

"The quality control of the degree program really has to sit in one place," Meisels said. "A single place is held accountable for the accreditation process. If you assign the control of a program to a subsection of that unit, there is no way to hold it accountable in the same sense."

Meisels said it's possible those concerns could be worked out, but he is reluctant to talk in more detail about the issue until the regional campuses task force has had a chance to discuss it. The task force is expected to produce a report by the fall.

Meanwhile, faculty in St. Petersburg say that if the proposed changes are rejected, creativity on the campus could be squashed.

"Clearly, there would be some sense of resignation and demoralizing among the faculty," said Darryl Paulson, an associate professor of political science on the St. Petersburg campus. "We spent a lot of time doing this and reviewing it."