With 10 days left in the legislative session, the effort to phase out USF St. Petersburg's separate accreditation and fold it back into the major research university appears virtually certain to succeed. An improved plan for the merger moved forward Tuesday that offers better protections and potentially a brighter future for the St. Petersburg campus. While the best option would be to study the concept for a year and build community support, the most pragmatic approach now is to persuade lawmakers to continue to fine-tune it.
The House Education Committee added details to the concept that suddenly surfaced last month and has been pushed most directly by Rep. Chris Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor. To Sprowls' credit, there has been a commendable effort to address concerns among USFSP supporters. Among the positive changes:
• Developing the plan. The plan for phasing out separate accreditation would be developed by a 13-member task force appointed by the chair of the Board of Governors, which oversees the state university system; legislative leaders; and USF leaders. Only two of the seats appear guaranteed to represent USFSP, those held by the regional chancellor and an appointee by the chair of the campus board. The task force is better than allowing university officials to work out the details themselves, but more seats should be reserved to specifically represent USFSP's interests.
• Governance. USFSP would keep its name and continue to be led by a regional chancellor. Even better, the five-member campus board would be expanded to seven members, and the chair of the faculty senate and the student body president would be ex-officio members. The campus board chair would be guaranteed to be a member of the USF Board of Trustees.
• Programs. In a strong show of good faith, the revisions make clear that the respected USF College of Marine Science would be included as part of USFSP. While it is on the St. Petersburg campus, marine science has reported to the Tampa campus. The task force working on the accreditation phase-out also is directed to identify "specific degrees in programs of strategic significance'' in areas such as health care and the STEM programs — science, technology, engineering and math. Language should be added to protect named colleges, such as the Kate Tiedemann College of Business at USFSP.
• Transparency. Important provisions have been added to require USF to provide specifics after the merger about investments in the St. Petersburg and USF Sarasota-Manatee campuses. The university also would issue reports about variables such as student enrollment and performance, research and new degree programs. That openness is essential to ensure USFSP is fairly treated.
The biggest concern that remains unaddressed is student access. USF in Tampa and USFSP have different admissions standards. There remains a lack of commitment to ensure that raising all campuses to a single admissions standard will not shut out good Pinellas students who should have the opportunity to go to a four-year public university in their home county.
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There remains broad opposition in St. Petersburg to melding together USF after USFSP has made so much progress since achieving separate accreditation more than a decade ago. The community should have been consulted on the front end of this discussion, not on the back end. The House Education Committee's Tuesday meeting was formally noticed the day before, and the USF amendment was not publicly available until several hours before the meeting. No wonder there was only one speaker and some confusion among committee members who don't live in Pinellas.
Rep. Ben Diamond, D-St. Petersburg, made a commendable effort to push for a one-year study of USF consolidation and was predictably rejected. Now the legislation, HB 423, is headed for approval by the full House. The provisions involving USFSP have been substantially improved, and the most realistic approach for its supporters is to push for more protections to better ensure the campus' long-term future.