The recent consolidation of the University of South Florida’s three campuses continues to be tumultuous. The parties haven’t agreed on what they want and how they want it achieved. But one thing everybody should agree on is that consolidation should lift up all three campuses, not benefit the Tampa campus to the detriment of the St. Petersburg and Sarasota-Manatee campuses. State Rep. Chris Sprowls and state Sen. Jeff Brandes, who shepherded the consolidation legislation in 2018, must stay on top of the growing tensions.
For years, the three campuses had separate accreditations, which granted the two smaller campuses more autonomy. During the lead up to consolidation in 2018, proponents argued that the campuses would benefit from USF Tampa’s status and additional funding as a preeminent university. But the move also came with some growing pains over which campus would manage what and how students would be affected.
St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman embodied the latest concerns about USF St. Petersburg’s reputation in a letter sent to Brandes earlier this month. “While consolidation was unwelcome and presented new challenges, I was hopeful that (USF St. Petersburg) would continue to thrive so long as the letter of the new law was followed,” he wrote. “My hope is now waning.” Even Brandes wasn’t fully satisfied with how the process had played out so far. "I think the larger concern is that they aren’t following the spirit of what the Legislature has directed them to do,” he told the Tampa Bay Times' Divya Kumar in an interview.
Much of the disagreement hinges on class size and how many students enroll at the St. Petersburg campus. Only 418 new freshmen named St. Petersburg as their home campus this summer and fall compared to 650 before consolidation changed admissions criteria. Overall student enrollment in St. Petersburg was down from 4,170 in 2017 to 3,878 this year.
As the chief architect of the legislation, Sprowls must provide the needed leadership to ensure that consolidation is successful. On Oct. 8, he tweeted that USF’s Board of Trustees and administration had said they would raise USF St. Petersburg’s freshman class size to 650 students next year. It’s good that Sprowls is continuing to hold the school accountable for its promises. But at the same time, USF leaders have guaranteed things before without actually achieving them. Student enrollment is a quantifiable goal, which makes it easier to track. But in the meantime, USF’s administration needs to prioritize and respect USF St. Petersburg the way it clearly does USF Tampa.
USF president Steve Currall noted that there would be a “heightened focus on stabilizing all three campuses” over the next few years. The consolidation process will understandably take time to perfect. But the university’s administration will need to make sure they are considering every campus, and not just one campus, in their decisions going forward.
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