Days after the Florida Senate surprised the University of South Florida with a proposal to immediately spin off its Lakeland branch campus into the state's 12th university, Senate budget writers proposed slashing USF's state funding nearly 60 percent.
The common denominator: influential budget chairman and supporter of the standalone Lakeland school, Sen. JD Alexander.
"It's political," USF chief operating officer John Long told school trustees at an emergency meeting Monday evening in Tampa.
The Senate proposal would cut $79 million in state funding from USF — out of a total of $400 million in reductions to the university system statewide. Another $25 million would be held in "contingency," pending USF's cooperation in making USF's Lakeland campus into "Florida Polytechnic University" — Alexander's pet project.
Factoring in the extra faculty, staff and students USF would have to absorb because of the split, and the money for USF's pharmacy school that would go away with the change, USF leaders say they are looking at a cut of almost $104 million.
The cuts would mean fewer courses and class sections offered, USF vice provost for budget planning Graham Tobin said. It could mean faculty cuts and more reliance on teaching assistants, he said. Less research activity. Less community outreach. A lower reputation among peer institutions.
"Draconian," is how USF president Judy Genshaft put it.
"We can change this. It is not a done deal," Genshaft said. "We can change this. And that's important. This is not the time to go 'ooh' and leave scared. This is the time to be very strong and move forward on behalf of the University of South Florida system."
University officials say the budget appears to single out USF, which is being asked to absorb about 20 percent of the cuts to the entire university system.
Alexander said the cuts are comparable statewide, except for the $25 million contingency.
"We did deduct some (funding) that we put back as an incentive toward the completion of the transfer of the assets to Florida Polytechnic University," Alexander said. "So when you add that back in, it's roughly the same as comparable institutions."
Alexander said Senate staff made cuts to the state universities based on "the amount of reserves available and the total size of the budget."
But USF leaders say using reserve money, about $100 million in USF's case, is unfair. In many instances those funds are either dedicated to existing programs or required by statute to remain unallocated. The money, even if it could be used, wouldn't come close to filling the gap, Long said.
The new Florida Polytechnic would be the only university spared from cuts in the Senate plan. For USF, the cuts would amount to a 58 percent funding reduction, according to a university analysis. By comparison, the University of Florida would be cut by 26 percent and Florida State University by 22 percent, according to USF.
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The House, which passed its budget last week, is recommending a nearly 9 percent cut.
The Senate's budget plan came a few days after a surprise bill to create the 12th university out of USF Polytechnic was slipped into a higher education committee budget proposal.
In explaining the need for the bill, Alexander said he had lost faith in USF's ability to usher USF Poly toward independence on a path mapped out by the Florida Board of Governors, which oversees the state university system. The board agreed in November to keep the school under USF until it was separately accredited, had at least two of the buildings on its new campus built and increased its enrollment significantly. That process was expected to take several years.
Now, Florida Polytechnic would be born this year with a $32.7 million budget but no accreditation, buildings or students.
Nothing is certain. The Senate and House will have to come up with a matching budget, and then Gov. Rick Scott will have to sign off, before the budget becomes a reality.
In the meantime, Genshaft and USF's trustees said they will appeal to lawmakers and the governor for help. At the meeting Monday, they asked for help from students, faculty, alumni and community members.
They did not mince words.
"This university has been under assault for the past several months, and everybody knows why," said trustees chairman John Ramil. "You have to play the game for a while. But when the game starts to move away from what's right, what's right for the university and for the students, you have to put your foot down and say, 'Enough.'
"And we've said, 'Enough.' "
The room broke out in a standing ovation.