TALLAHASSEE — An outraged USF "Bull Nation" could not stop the Legislature from passing a bill Monday that makes it harder for the school to become the state's third "preeminent" university and reap many millions of new dollars each year.
In a one-day extra session, lawmakers voted to require 60 percent of a university's students to graduate in four years as a condition of preeminence.
That's higher than the existing benchmark of 70 percent in six years. USF has a four-year graduation rate of 54 percent and is most directly affected by the change, which became a powerful rallying cry for students, faculty and alumni.
An alumni Web page generated an avalanche of more than 20,000 messages to lawmakers. Among others, Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn worked the phones, to no avail.
"You can't change the rules in the middle of the game," Buckhorn said. "It's just so unfair."
What enraged USF and its allies was that the change surfaced for the first time at a brief meeting Friday, with no public explanation of it or its implications.
Most Tampa Bay lawmakers were blindsided by it and had no easy explanation when their phones began ringing Saturday.
"I was flat embarrassed," said Sen. Tom Lee, R-Thonotosassa. "We should never learn about the impact of what we did from the people we're impacting. I hope we learn from this."
USF accused lawmakers of "shifting the goal posts" at the last minute and noted that the original version of the bill would have imposed a 50 percent graduation rate in four years, which USF already meets.
But the 60 percent threshold has long been a priority of Senate President Joe Negron, R-Stuart, who also successfully pushed for $600 million more in university spending, including more than $50 million more for USF.
Negron and House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O'Lakes, signed off on a 292-page higher education policy bill Friday. They invited public testimony, but nobody came forward.
When the bill (SB 374) got to the Senate floor Monday, every Republican senator voted yes, including five from Tampa Bay in addition to Democrat Darryl Rouson of St. Petersburg.
Sen. Dana Young, R-Tampa, said she voted yes after she received Negron's commitment that he would consider changes next session to keep USF on a "path to preeminence."
The higher graduation standard is scheduled to take effect in the 2018-19 academic year, but the Legislature will meet before then, next January.
Speculation has been rampant among legislators and USF faithful that Florida State pushed for the higher graduation standard to avoid having to divide next year's $48 million in preeminence money three ways instead of evenly dividing it with the University of Florida.
Florida State president John Thrasher, a former senator and House speaker with ready access to key lawmakers, said neither he nor his lobbyists had anything to do with the change.
"No one would have been instructed to make any changes like that. The answer to that is no," Thrasher told the Times/Herald. "That's Joe Negron's call and the speaker's."
Negron wrote an opinion column for the Tampa Bay Times in which he criticized USF for not getting its facts straight.
"The goal posts were not moved," Negron wrote. "Proposed legislation is frequently revised and amended during session, and it was imprudent for any observer to count their chickens before they hatched. USF simply did not hit the current standard."
Senators said USF was not a target.
"No one was punished in this budget," Sen. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton. "To me, moving a goal post or punishing is when someone is entitled to something, and then you take that entitlement away."
Galvano emphasized that if current law stayed in effect, with a 70 percent graduation standard in six years, USF still would not reach that benchmark, but UF and FSU do.
Of the three state schools, USF has the most students who receive Pell grants for financial need and USF graduates a higher percentage of low-income, black and Hispanic students than either of the other two.
USF has focused on the Legislature's "high-need" areas of study such as STEM, health and education, and awards more of those types of degrees than UF and FSU.
Many USF students have jobs or are the first in their families to go to college, and USF noted that the four-year college graduation rate nationally is 26 percent.
USF's allies expressed bewilderment that the Legislature would do anything to complicate the school's pursuit of excellence in a year when Tampa Bay boasts both a House speaker and the Senate's lead budget-writer, Jack Latvala of Clearwater, in a Capitol where lawmakers zealously safeguard most local institutions, especially colleges and universities.
The bill passed the Senate 35-3. The House passed it 85-27.
Some Tampa Bay House members voted no.
"My hometown has been cheated," said Rep. Janet Cruz, D-Tampa, the House Democratic leader.
Tampa Chamber of Commerce chairman Mike Griffin said he will now take USF's case to Gov. Rick Scott, who can veto the bill.
"It's disappointing when you look at how all this came about: the lack of transparency, the millions of dollars literally leaving our community as we speak," Griffin said. "We're going to hold our people accountable, period."
USF System president Judy Genshaft planned to attend a board meeting at USF St. Petersburg on Monday afternoon, but as she put it obliquely on speakerphone, "There are some other things that have occurred, so I need to be close by."
Times/Herald staff writer Michael Auslen and Times staff writer Richard Danielson contributed to this report. Contact Steve Bousquet at email@example.com. Follow @stevebousquet. Contact Claire McNeill at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @clairemcneill.