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With local lawmakers in charge, USF receives record state funding

The University of South Florida is set to get millions of dollars more in funding from the Florida Legislature, supported by House Speaker Chris Sprowls and Senate President Wilton Simpson.
Florida House Speaker Chris Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor, unveils sea level rise and flooding bill proposals at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg on Feb. 26.
Florida House Speaker Chris Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor, unveils sea level rise and flooding bill proposals at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg on Feb. 26. [ Photo courtesy University of South Florida ]
Published Mar. 16|Updated Mar. 17

The University of South Florida has not always felt the warmth of state lawmakers’ limelight.

But Tampa Bay’s 50,000-student university system is poised to see historic funding from the Legislature this year. The school is chalking that up to flush state coffers and the powerful support of two hometown leaders: House Speaker Chris Sprowls and Senate President Wilton Simpson.

USF is slated to get $75 million from the state budget for a sleek new ocean science building on its St. Petersburg campus, along with millions of additional dollars for cyber security and nursing. It’s also expecting a bump in recurring money for salaries and other operations. The Legislature has passed the budget and it now goes to Gov. Ron DeSantis.

University leaders say Sprowls, a Palm Harbor resident and USF alum, was instrumental in driving money to the school and has championed turning the St. Petersburg campus into a nationally recognized marine science powerhouse. And they lauded Simpson, who lives in Pasco County, for pushing forward the record funding this year.

“With these new investments, our state leaders have chosen to build for the future — helping us create a talent and innovation pipeline that will serve generations of Floridians to come,” Will Weatherford, chairman of the USF board of trustees and a former state House speaker, said in a statement.

Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, said USF’s prestige has grown in the time he’s been in the Legislature. He said that’s been aided by having the right people in office who have put their thumbs on the scale in support of USF’s vision.

“Having a speaker and senate president from your region generally only helps the university, and I think you’re seeing that kind of windfall play out here now,” he said.

The added funding provides a boost to a university that has seen its prestige rise in national rankings in recent years but that has long vied with more established universities for funding. As the university closes in on its hunt for a new president, the search committee has emphasized both the importance of relationships with legislators and in finding new sources of revenue.

Founded in the 1950s, USF’s history in Florida’s Capitol doesn’t run as deep as the University of Florida or Florida State University, whose student organizations and government often serve as a pipeline for Florida politicians.

At times, supporters say, it felt like USF wasn’t getting its due despite its performance on things like the number of patents its researchers won and the numbers of graduates leaving with degrees in science, technology, engineering and math fields.

A decade ago, the Legislature proposed cutting about 60 percent of the school’s budget, more than any other university that year, in a move USF leaders at the time said was politically motivated. The funding cuts were later changed to spread more equally among universities but still led USF to dip into reserves and implement “austerity measures,” like rolling back library hours and cutting certain degree programs.

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USF supporters also cried foul in 2016, when lawmakers changed a key metric required for a university to be labeled as “preeminent” just as USF appeared close to meeting the goals. Legislative leaders denied the changes were because of USF. The university later attained preeminent status, which made it eligible for more state funding.

Rep. Ben Diamond, D-St. Petersburg, said it was frustrating for years trying to advocate for USF, which was meeting and exceeding performance metrics but wasn’t receiving the funding to match.

“USF established itself as a preeminent university based on the metrics that were set by Tallahassee, and then for several years the funding never really came in a significant way,” he said.

Sprowls, who graduated from USF in 2006, was elected to the House in 2014 and became House speaker in 2020. He was one of the main architects of a plan to consolidate USF’s three campuses — the main campus in Tampa, as well as USF St. Petersburg and USF Sarasota-Manatee — into one system that operated together for academic policies and accreditation.

The consolidation move caused anxiety that the smaller St. Petersburg campus would be swallowed by Tampa’s campus. But USF lobbyist Mark Walsh said the move has helped the campuses rise together and gain more investment, not less.

Sprowls also locked into the idea of raising the profile of the College of Marine Science, held at the USF St. Petersburg campus.

“How can we take that crowning jewel and really lift it up, not just from the state perspective but nationally and internationally,” Sprowls said last Friday. “This was an opportunity for us to invest.”

The budget approved this week by the Legislature gives USF $75 million to build a facility at 830 First St. S in St. Petersburg for a planned Interdisciplinary Center of Excellence in Environmental and Oceanographic Sciences, which will research challenges created by climate change like sea level rise and coastal hazards.

The new teaching facility, which will cost $80 million to build overall, will also house the Florida Flood Hub for Applied Research and Innovation, which legislators last year created and placed at USF St. Petersburg. The Legislature allocated $5.5 million for its operation.

It’s rare for the university to get nearly all the funding needed for a project in one swoop, Walsh said, crediting Sprowls and Simpson as well as a good budget year. When the university in 2015 sought funding for a downtown medical campus, he said it took eight years to secure the $110 million from the Legislature.

Legislators this year also approved about $45 million in new funding for USF for nursing programs and remodeling USF Health, $57.5 million for cybersecurity at the school, $72.8 million for building maintenance and $55 million in recurring funds for the operational budget. It’s the largest single-year investment in operations the university has ever received, said interim president Rhea Law, who is one of two finalists for the presidency.

“Every great city has a great university, and the better the university is, the better the city will be, the better the region will be and the better the state will be,” Law said, touting the funding.

USF got about $70 million total in new recurring funding. UF and FSU, the state’s other preeminent universities, each got about $60 million in new recurring funding, USF lobbyist Lauren Hartmann said.

Susan MacManus, a retired USF political science professor who was one of Sprowls’ professors when he was a student, said having a local lawmaker in leadership is “golden” for an area.

Even when a lawmaker leaves the Legislature, the relationship helps a university benefit, she said, by helping connect the organization with other politicians.

Sprowls leaves office in January and has not announced his next plans. He said he isn’t concerned about USF’s ability to retain funding with him out of office, saying USF’s rise in national rankings speaks for itself.

“It seems very boring but it was very important to USF, about consolidated accreditation for those universities, which I think allowed them to kind of fight as a team and I think they’re going to start to rise that way.”

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