Give University of South Florida president Steve Currall credit for listening and responding to serious concerns about the evolving consolidation plan for the university’s three campuses. The revisions revealed Thursday are a substantial improvement, benefit the entire university and treat the St. Petersburg campus much more fairly. While there are details left to be resolved, this 2.0 consolidation blueprint better reflects the spirit of the 2018 law and offers a reasonable path for the branch campuses to maintain and enhance their unique identities within the major research university.
Currall and the architect of the law requiring the consolidation, Rep. Chris Sprowls of Palm Harbor, worked closely to make significant changes to the proposal and better balance the distribution of authority and academic offerings between the main campus in Tampa and the branch campuses in St. Petersburg and Sarasota. The updated plan they presented to the Tampa Bay Times editorial board Thursday resolves several key issues:
-- Authority. The regional chancellors of the branch campuses, Martin Tadlock in St. Petersburg and Karen Holbrook in Sarasota (who joined Currall and Sprowls Thursday), would regain some responsibility for decision-making regarding academic programs and budgeting at their campuses. That’s just as the state law and the academic accreditation agency envision. Those responsibilities were taken away in the initial plan.
-- Budgeting. The branch campus boards would approve budgeting and programming recommendations for their campuses, and budgets for colleges with a presence on multiple campuses (the College of Arts and Sciences, for example) would be broken out by location. That transparency is vital to ensure resources are fairly distributed.
-- Student fees. There will be one common student fee across the university, but there are new protections to ensure students on branch campuses will not be subsidizing student activities on the main campus in Tampa. The plan says students in St. Petersburg and Sarasota "shall not be assessed fees in excess of the amount necessary to pay for those services readily available and directly accessible to branch campuses.''
-- Campus name. After some initial uncertainty, the St. Petersburg campus will continue to be called the University of South Florida St. Petersburg. "The name is in the law,'' Sprowls said.
There is other good news for USFSP in the latest consolidation plan, including specific enhancements. For example, there would be a new Center of Excellence in Oceanographic and Environmental Sciences. There also would be a new Center of Excellence in STEM education. The St. Petersburg campus would assume oversight of some business degrees now based on the Tampa campus, including finance. And there would be new or enhanced programs for journalism and digital communications, and for areas such as public health and nursing. All of those enhancements should help ensure USFSP remains a vibrant destination as a branch campus even as it loses its much-cherished separate accreditation.
Of course, there are other key details to resolve as the USF Board of Trustees prepares to consider the consolidation plan in December. Internally, degree paths and course offerings have to be knitted together across the three campuses. Externally, there remain community concerns in St. Petersburg about student accessibility as admission standards are raised to be uniform throughout USF.
Overall, USF consolidation 2.0 is a big step in the right direction for the entire university, which will have one accreditation, one set of admissions standards and one diploma. It should benefit all students regardless of whether they are primarily based in Tampa, St. Petersburg or Sarasota. And it reflects well on Sprowls, who remained engaged and pushed for revisions, and on Currall, who has proven to be a quick study and a good listener in less than four months on the job.
Ultimately, though, the USF consolidation plan provides only the road map for "one university geographically distributed.'' The success of a unified USF really will depend on the good intentions and collaboration of university administrators and faculty across three campuses to work for the common good.
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.