There is a bright spot for the University of South Florida St. Petersburg as the maneuvering continues over consolidating USF’s three campuses into one major research university. A key task force has recommended that USFSP become a branch campus that still would have its own authority to hire faculty, develop budgets and respond to the particular needs of its students and the community. USF president Judy Genshaft and the university’s Board of Trustees should embrace this approach, which would help ensure the St. Petersburg campus remains vibrant and distinctive.
With deadlines looming for consolidation plans to be submitted before they are considered by a key USF Board of Trustees committee next week, anxiety has been rising at the St. Petersburg campus. The fears were justified amid suggestions that USFSP could transform from a campus with its own accreditation to merely an instructional site -- essentially classroom space with all of the key decisions about hiring, spending and programs made at USF in Tampa. That would have destroyed decades of progress at USFSP. It also would have violated the spirit of the 2018 law aimed at folding the campuses in St. Petersburg and Sarasota into the major research university while enhancing their own academic offerings.
The task force report being submitted to USF leaders this week should ease those fears. It calls for the St. Petersburg and Sarasota campuses to be branch campuses with each headed by a chancellor reporting directly to the USF president. A draft of the final report also says the chancellor would hire faculty and employees, submit budgets to the USF president and make academic decisions “in consultation’’ with the USF provost or other chief academic officer for the university.
Here’s why this is important to students at USFSP: As a branch campus, the campus chancellor and faculty leaders can continue to tailor spending and programs to meet the needs of students who sought a smaller academic environment. They can ensure individual attention remains a priority and that USFSP remains closely aligned to the community. They also will have a better shot at attracting and keeping quality professors.
Here’s another important point in the task force report: It warns against establishing a standard student fee that would unfairly redistribute the cost for services in Tampa to students in St. Petersburg and Sarasota who can’t easily use those services. A distinctive student life tailored for each campus is essential. Look no further than The Crow’s Nest, the USFSP student newspaper that has provided excellent news coverage of the consolidation issue.
While the task force’s report is encouraging, it is just one element in the drive toward USF consolidation. Still unclear are which colleges would be based on the St. Petersburg campus and which degree programs would be added. The 2018 law makes clear the highly respected College of Marine Science that is physically located in St. Petersburg but now reports to Tampa should report to St. Petersburg, but there remains some internal push back. A consultant recommended last fall that USFSP get only the one college that would include marine science, which would short-change a campus that now has three colleges.
The task force sets an important marker by calling for USFSP to be a branch campus. It’s also significant that this approach has been embraced by House Rules Chairman Chris Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor, and by Senate President Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, the sponsors of the legislation that required the consolidation. Their support sends a strong message to Genshaft and the USF Board of Trustees that they should build the consolidation on this solid foundation and avoid any appearance of a hostile takeover.