ST. PETERSBURG — President Judy Genshaft said she first got wind of the contentious idea to consolidate the University of South Florida System last fall.
She was in the state Capitol in late October, she said, the day Sen. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, was officially designated the Senate's next president.
Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, invited Genshaft and USF St. Petersburg lobbyist Helen Levine to his office afterward, she said. There, he floated the concept of phasing out the independent accreditation at both USF St. Petersburg and USF Sarasota-Manatee, uniting those schools as one university under Tampa control.
"He said to me, 'What do you think about this?'" Genshaft recalled Thursday after a campus board meeting at USF St. Petersburg. "It was a new concept that I had not heard before, so my reaction was, 'I will follow the law, whatever is approved.'"
She added: "I was surprised, I was surprised."
Brandes said Thursday that their broad conversation circled around several ideas for the future of the USF System. Consolidation was just one path discussed, by no means a final plan.
But now that plan is cruising through the Florida House with growing momentum and support from key players, including state Senate leaders, Florida's higher education board and senior USF officials, even as dissent simmers in St. Petersburg, where some felt blindsided.
"There is some writing on the wall," Genshaft told the campus board, nodding to the bill's quick pace.
"This is really not the way, as the old saying goes, the sausage is supposed to be made," St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman said Thursday. "You do something this significant in secret and then roll it out and steamroll it through — that's not the way it should be."
Genshaft's comments were some of her strongest yet in favor of the hot-button idea. She extolled the virtues of a single university, including giving students access to more programs and spreading the spoils of its new status as a "preeminent" university beyond Tampa.
She reiterated what other university leaders have stressed: that USF did not orchestrate the proposal, and that she was surprised to learn about its addition to a higher education bill last month, considering that her talk with Brandes lacked specifics.
"We walked through multiple options in that conversation," Brandes explained. "It was really in the context of looking at, what's the best way moving forward for the system and for the campus to operate? And once USF's main campus gets preeminent status, how would that affect the satellite campuses?"
He said they discussed a few paths: leaving the system intact, making USF St. Petersburg fully independent, or uniting all three.
The latter was an idea he'd heard from Rep. Chris Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor, a Pinellas County ally and friend.
Sprowls said it was last summer, when USF's push for preeminence was in the news, that he began to think about the potential benefits. As it stands, USF Tampa competes alone for the title and would keep the millions in prize money to itself.
That wasn't going to help the regional campuses, Sprowls realized.
"So if we're going to have a strong, regional institution in Tampa Bay, what's the best way to do that?" he said. His answer: Unite USF, making every campus preeminent.
Though he shared his research with Brandes, Sprowls said, he did not approach Genshaft.
On Thursday, Genshaft said Brandes didn't indicate in the October meeting whether the Legislature would be pressing forward with the proposal, which now appears on the last few pages of a 52-page, fast-moving higher education package.
Several prominent voices in Pinellas County, from retired faculty to civic leaders, remain unconvinced the plan will benefit St. Petersburg, especially if the reins are handed to the powers that be in Tampa. In their eyes, this apparent coup reopens old wounds on a campus that has long cast itself as the scrappy, underfunded underdog to Tampa's rankings-driven regime.
"As much as this is a discussion about bringing the campuses together, the undertone here is the distrust of the leaders in Pinellas County versus the leadership of Hillsborough," Brandes said. "This is a trust conversation."
Kriseman, along with county and chamber leaders, have urged the Legislature to "hit the pause button" and listen.
"Unfortunately it doesn't seem like that's going to happen," he said. "I get the sense that it's a done deal, that they don't really care what our community thinks and what Sarasota thinks."
County Commissioner Ken Welch, a USF St. Petersburg graduate, said the vocal reaction comes in response to a history of struggle.
"On that kind of issue you really want to over-communicate and not have this kind of October surprise dropped on the community," he said.
Chris Steinocher, the chamber leader, said Genshaft told him of her talk with Brandes, recalling it as a passing brainstorm session without much meat. Thus Steinocher said she and other university leaders seemed genuinely shocked by the bill.
USF leaders are mounting community forums, but some say it's too little, too late.
"Transparency, to me, seems to begin at the beginning of the process and not at the end," said Darryl Paulson, an emeritus professor of government at USF St. Petersburg. "Suddenly it's presented … and we have very little time to respond to what they've been working on for months. You can't fight something if you don't have the information."
Meanwhile, at the Sarasota-Manatee campus board meeting Thursday, members made a vote of confidence in support of the consolidation measure.
The current setup gives USF St. Petersburg and USF Sarasota-Manatee control of their budgets, hiring and programming. That relative autonomy came as a relief to St. Petersburg loyalists after decades of tension over funding and leadership. On her first day in 2000, Genshaft crossed the bay to hear directly from frustrated faculty.
Now USF leaders promise that, whatever happens, regional voices will get an equal seat at the table. Board of trustees Chair Brian Lamb wrote to Sprowls and Brandes vowing as much.
"I can only tell you, we're not going to go back to the year 2000," Genshaft said Thursday. "That was stifling, that was not creative, that was not impressive. We are going to keep our forward movement."
Contact Claire McNeill at email@example.com or (727) 893-8321.