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  1. The Education Gradebook

USF Global Initiative think tank starts with high hopes, ends with a thud

TAMPA — Hopes were high.

The University of South Florida wanted research that would move the needle. The newly formed Global Initiative on Civil Society and Conflict promised just that: high-impact research on the underlying causes of the biggest conflicts in the world. It would start small, then become self-sustaining, bootstraps-style.

Instead, it closed its doors the week of Thanksgiving, having dwindled to two employees, with a media spotlight on its dried-up funding and identity crisis.

"I swing for the fences every day," said Eric Eisenberg, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, who made the decision to shutter the think tank. "Sometimes we miss the ball, but that's the work that we do."

The center debuted in 2011, drawing more than $4 million in federal and state grant funding under David Jacobson's leadership. But by summer 2015, grant funding had almost entirely evaporated. Eisenberg asked a colleague to review its operations.

Her report, first broadcast on WTVT-Ch. 13, found deep-seated issues with finances and strategy.

"There is no clearly defined vision or mission," the report said, while "grant funds are not being spent and/or tracked appropriately."

Jacobson didn't understand USF financial procedures "and will continue to make poor decisions without training and accountability," wrote Angela Crist, Florida Institute of Government director.

USF Audit and Compliance also examined anonymous complaints that employees were getting paid without showing up, even taking vacations on company time. Officials combed through the finances.

"Everything came through fine," Eisenberg said.

He liked the work employees were doing, exploring the roots of violent extremism. But as the need for money intensified, the center's broad vision became even more unfocused.

A potential partnership with Afghanistan in summer 2015 promised critical dollars. Afghan officials asked the State Department for help building a more democratic process. The Global Initiative would assist.

"We're on the 2 yard line, we're about to put the ball into the end zone," Eisenberg said. "Then I get a sheepish phone call."

Politics had changed. The project was dead.

The center reduced staff to two and moved from a cushy office suite to faculty offices. Grants failed to materialize.

Eisenberg called a meeting.

"I don't think this is working as a separate institute," Eisenberg told Jacobson. "I love the work that you do, and I want you do it in a department."

Jacobson will keep researching civil societies and conflict, but without an administrative role. He will remain in the Department of Sociology, making $155,528 — reflecting the loss of his $22,500 administrative stipend.

In a long email, Jacobson said he appreciated the opportunity to do unparalleled work with exceptional people.

"What may not be fully understood is the extraordinary productivity, and quality, of work that came out of the Global Initiative," he said. One such accomplishment was creating a social and political data set that tracks Boko Haram in Nigeria.

The other employee, Adib Farhadi, will remain a research assistant professor.

USF trustees reacted to the WTVT report at a meeting this month. Trustee Jordan Zimmerman lamented the potential damage to USF's "trusted brand."

Eisenberg said he will implement regular reports to identify centers that need support.

"Not every initiative that we try works," he said. "It's important for us to remain innovative."

Contact Claire McNeill at cmcneill@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8321.

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