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Big dreams, big hurdles for new Florida Polytechnic University

Architect John White stands in the main classroom building being built at Florida Polytechnic University in Lakeland. 
Published Jun. 24, 2013

LAKELAND — The new Florida Polytechnic University has grand plans, starting with the main classroom building scheduled to open next year.

It will have a domed glass atrium shaded by awnings that adjust with the sun. Students on the way to state-of-the-art laboratories will enter through arched entries with skylights.

But today, the building is still a mix of wire, pipe and concrete, surrounded by mud and dirt.

It's a fitting portrait of Florida's 12th and newest university:

Big dreams but big hurdles.

Starting a university from scratch is not easy. Polytechnic's leaders say they are moving at full speed, but they also know the clock is ticking.

A 500-person initial class is supposed to arrive in fall 2014.

Interim chief Ava Parker is confident the school will meet every deadline. She told the board that oversees the state university system as much last week, fending off heaps of skepticism along the way.

Skeptics such as Dean Colson, who chairs the board, called the Florida Board of Governors, wonder whether the school will be ready in a year or whether enough students will enroll. Others still don't agree with the Legislature's splitting Polytechnic from the University of South Florida in 2012.

"I don't think that it is deserved, but I certainly understand it," Parker said of the skepticism. "And I think that the best way to get beyond that is to keep them informed."

As an incentive to lure students, Parker said she would like to offer each student a full scholarship for at least the first year. But the plan isn't much beyond an idea.

More than 100 people have applied for faculty positions at the university, which will offer bachelor's and master's degrees in engineering, technology and applied science at first. The university has about a dozen open positions, with more to come.

Small but signature details for the school remain up in the air. There's no official school color — though Parker and other Polytechnic employees wore purple during last week's board meeting — much less a mascot or a nickname.

One of the biggest obstacles is finding the high-caliber students who are supposed to become Florida's next generation of workers, fulfilling the school's vision as a science, technology, math and engineering university.

The school won't be accredited until it graduates its first class, likely in 2016. Until then, it can't offer students federal financial aid.

Even if Parker's idea for a tuition waiver is implemented, Polytechnic will still have to compete with the state's established institutions. Both USF and the University of Central Florida are within an hour's drive of the Lakeland campus and have a combined 102-year history.

"Those kids have lots of alternatives, and you're asking them to come to an unaccredited school," Colson said. "And even though you're offering it to them for free, at least the first year, I think it's going to be a lot of hard work."

Polytechnic has hired an admissions director, Scott Rhodes, who is ironing out the application process and creating partnerships with feeder schools such as Polk State College.

Rhodes will set up shop in a trailer on the construction site because he wants guidance counselors, international recruiting agents and prospective students to see the campus rising before their eyes when they visit.

They'll need hard hats, reflective vests and safety goggles.

"We'll be able to tour them around the outside of the building, and, once construction is far enough along, we'll begin to take them through the building as well," he said.

Parker refuses to think about Plan B. There isn't one.

She plans to meet every goal, every benchmark.

"I believe it's in the first quarter of 2014 that I have to be able to stand up and say we have recruited the students to start our first class," she said.

Count Colson as dubious.

"If it's not an impossible task, I'm sure you'll make it succeed," he told Parker. "However, it may be an impossible task."

Contact Tia Mitchell at tmitchell@tampabay.com.

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