Editorial: USF consolidation plan needs work

CHERIE DIEZ   |   Times
The Kate Tiedemann College of Business at the University of South Florida in St. Petersburg. In September 2014, entrepreneur Kate Tiedeman donated $10 million gift, the largest gift in USFSP history, to name the College of Business. Another gift, $5 million from another local entrepreneur, named the building Lynn Pippenger Hall.
CHERIE DIEZ | Times The Kate Tiedemann College of Business at the University of South Florida in St. Petersburg. In September 2014, entrepreneur Kate Tiedeman donated $10 million gift, the largest gift in USFSP history, to name the College of Business. Another gift, $5 million from another local entrepreneur, named the building Lynn Pippenger Hall.
Published September 27 2018

Consultants drafting a plan to merge the University of South Florida’s three campuses into one university call their proposal a “reimagined’’ USF. They need a more creative imagination. The initial version short-changes the St. Petersburg campus in exactly the ways skeptics of the consolidation feared, and supporters of this gem on the downtown waterfront should speak up before it’s too late.

The 86-page report released last week appears to take away more from USFSP than it adds. For example, now the campus is home to three colleges: The College of Arts and Sciences, the Kate Tiedemann College of Business and the College of Education. The consultant envisions all of those colleges will be based in Tampa, and St. Petersburg would get only one in return. There are four colleges at USF Sarasota now, and that campus would lose them all. Is this a merger, or a hostile takeover?

The one college based at USFSP after consolidation would be a new College of Oceanography, Environmental Sciences and Sustainability. It would include the current College of Marine Science that is physically located in St. Petersburg now but reports to Tampa, and the Tampa-based Patel School of Global Sustainability. That’s a positive for St. Petersburg, and it would certainly be a distinctive feature that would help USFSP establish its own identity.

Of course, the consultant did not have any choice in that case. One of the few specific requirements in the legislation signed into law by Gov. Rick Scott this spring is that marine science would be based in St. Petersburg on the university’s flow chart as well as geographically.

Predictably, the frustration with the consultant’s initial work among USFSP supporters was immediate. St. Petersburg College president Tonjua Williams, a valuable member of the consolidation task force working with the consultant, observed that “it still seems all roads would end in Tampa.’’ Tiedemann, who donated $10 million and has her name on the USFSP College of Business, is not happy even as she recognizes there can be only one college of business at a united university. Other concerns were raised about the lack of many doctorate programs that were supposed to be carrots for the regional campuses.

The consultants do envision possibilities for additional degree programs at USFSP, which now has the authority to offer 24 bachelor’s degrees and 14 master’s degrees. They suggested opportunities such as graphic design and the arts, engineering, and nursing and health services. Those would be welcome additions, and USF Provost Ralph Wilcox urged his colleagues “to put self-interest aside and focus first and foremost on meeting the demonstrable needs of our students.’’

That’s easy for Wilcox, who is based in Tampa and consolidating his own power. The reality is that colleges, schools and administrative flow charts are important in higher education. Everything from hiring tenured faculty to determining course offerings often flows from the top down. In the consultant’s initial report, that flow generally runs one way from Tampa.

Fortunately, there is still time to make improvements in the vision for USF’s future because the task force will submit its recommendations to the USF Board of Trustees by February. There are benefits for USF students in St. Petersburg to being fully integrated into a major research university that has just joined the University of Florida and Florida State University as the state’s pre-eminent universities. But the task force and the lawmakers who pushed the consolidation legislation, including Rep. Chris Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor, and Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, have an obligation to ensure the vision of the benefits of a merged USF for the St. Petersburg campus is fully realized.

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