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USF consolidation plan needs more work | Editorial

The preliminary plan for the merger of three campuses is tilted toward Tampa. The University of South Florida St. Petersburg deserves better.

University of South Florida president Steve Currall describes a preliminary consolidation plan for the university’s three campuses as a work in progress. That’s good, because it needs more work if it is going to benefit all USF students and the St. Petersburg campus in particular. The architect of the state law requiring this merger, future Florida House Speaker Chris Sprowls of Palm Harbor, should remain engaged and ensure his vision of a fully integrated preeminent university benefiting all of Tampa Bay is carried out.

The still-evolving plan for a unified USF with campuses in Tampa, St. Petersburg and Sarasota is awfully tilted toward the main campus in Tampa. It neuters the regional chancellors who have been in charge of the St. Petersburg and Sarasota campuses, leaving them with no power over academics and focused on fundraising, community outreach and nonacademic staff. The real authority over academics, from faculty hiring to budgeting to courses, would flow through the deans of the colleges of arts and sciences, education and other colleges based in Tampa and reporting to USF provost Ralph Wilcox in Tampa. Currall suggests the chancellors at the branch campuses will have “a voice,’’ but it’s uncertain that voice would be heard.

The tangible benefits of this forced marriage also remain unclear for USFSP, whose tidy campus has flourished under its separate accreditation over the past dozen years. The College of Marine Science, which is based in St. Petersburg but has reported to Tampa, still would report to Tampa despite the intent of the 2018 state law. The preliminary plan mentions “centers of excellence’’ in St. Petersburg such as marine and environmental sciences, journalism and media studies, the arts, financial services and K-12 science education. That sounds promising, but details remain fuzzy.

Pay attention to the answers to these five questions as the consolidation plan is fleshed out in the next three months:

• How will the merger meet both the requirements of state law and the requirements of a single accreditation for the entire university? Currall is confident the outline already meets both, but USF trustee Nancy Watkins raised legitimate questions at this week’s meeting about the future role of branch campus boards. There also are fair questions raised by USFSP professors about whether the preliminary plan meets the branch campus requirements regarding decision-making over hiring faculty and budgeting.

• How will the academic experience on the St. Petersburg campus change? There is plenty of talk about more collaboration and investing in new technology. Does that mean USFSP students will spend less time with professors on campus and more time online or teleconferencing with professors in Tampa?

• How will USF ensure there is equity outside the classroom? Students first enrolling in the fall of 2020 on every campus will pay the same tuition and student fees, which means an increase at USFSP. There also will be one unified student government. Will St. Petersburg students have access to the same caliber of programs and activities as those in Tampa?

• How will the St. Petersburg campus remain distinctive? Perhaps the centers of excellence will provide the answer.

• What will be the name of the St. Petersburg campus? It may not be the University of South Florida St. Petersburg despite what state law says. Currall says the accreditation organization is “ambiguous’’ about branch campus names but clear that the university should have one brand.

Currall deserves the benefit of the doubt as he works through the consolidation details. He just became president July 1, so he inherited this challenge. He has been transparent and accessible, listened to concerns on both the Tampa and St. Petersburg campuses, and sounds open to making adjustments. But Sprowls, the driving force behind the law requiring the merger, has to remain engaged. He met with Currall on Sunday to discuss the outline, and he has to pay attention to the details to ensure his vision of a unified USF becomes more than rhetoric.

USF describes its new model as “one university geographically distributed.’’ At the moment, the distribution of academic control and home bases for high-profile programs seems to run in one direction.

Editorials are the institutional voice of the Tampa Bay Times. The members of the Editorial Board are Times Chairman and CEO Paul Tash, Editor of Editorials Tim Nickens, and editorial writers Elizabeth Djinis, John Hill and Jim Verhulst. Follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinion news