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New College and Florida Polytechnic are not playing cards to be traded | Editorial

Half-baked merger ideas hurt Florida higher education.

Will Florida legislators ever learn their lesson about treating public universities as personal playthings, to be traded and bartered based on brute politics? Over the years they have arbitrarily created new ones, merged existing campuses without warning and starved them all financially. Their latest brainstorm, to fold New College of Florida and Florida Polytechnic University into another university, actually might have merit. But it should not be done without some thought, and these sorts of political power plays diminish the reputation of Florida’s entire university system.

Look at the fluid proposal for New College in Sarasota. Without even consulting the college’s leaders, Rep. Randy Fine, R-Palm Bay, suggested merging it with Florida State University, which is more than five hours away in Tallahassee. Then the idea was floated to merge it with the University of South Florida. But wait. The House Appropriations Committee voted last week to hand it to the University of Florida. Is this a college drinking game, "Where in the world should the new home be for New College?''

This pattern of haphazard legislative meddling has a history. New College was once part of USF, but legislators broke it off to become independent in 2001, proclaiming it the “Honors College for the State of Florida.” USF had taken over the then-private school in 1975, making it a public institution. Now this small campus -- it has barely 800 students -- is suddenly up for grabs with no public discussion or thoughtful study.

Look no further than Florida Polytechnic for the consequences of mixing politics and higher education. The original Lakeland campus had long been a part of USF, but former Sen. J.D. Alexander demanded for it to become a new institution with a new campus and a new name -- Florida Polytechnic. It became Florida’s 12th university in 2012 and has only 1,300 students. Alexander got what he wanted and cost the state a fortune -- and now some legislators recognize the folly of it all.

Yet a fair question remains: If independence is too costly, what is the price of a merger? A House staff analysis says it costs the state $31,598 per degree at UF, compared to $197,681 at New College and $180,958 at Polytechnic. But no one has any idea what the actual savings might be, because no one knows how the merger would work or how much it would cost. This is no way to run a railroad -- or a higher education system that brags it is tops in the nation.

The University of South Florida already is consolidating its three campuses because the Legislature required it. That would seem to be enough upheaval for now, and at least the USF consolidation law first required a study.

In an ideal world, state legislators would not be swapping college campuses like trading cards. The Florida Board of Governors, which is allegedly overseeing the State University System, would be stronger, immune from the political winds and fully capable of making informed decisions. But legislators too often think they know best when they don’t.

With two weeks left in the legislative session, this is a brainstorm that ought to get lost in the last-minute scramble. Lawmakers could order a study on merging New College and Florida Polytechnic with another university. Otherwise, they should stick to wearing their university sweatshirts, doing the gator chomp and talking football.

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