USF in crosshairs of vendetta

Published Feb. 13, 2012

There are no limits to state Sen. JD Alexander's vendetta against the University of South Florida. It's not enough that the Senate Budget Committee chairman wants the Legislature to arbitrarily grant USF's Lakeland campus its immediate independence. Now his proposed state budget would starve to death the university, an unmistakable threat to anyone who dares to oppose his theft of the branch campus.

This is how far Alexander will go to silence his critics and secure his legacy by creating Florida's 12th university at USF Polytechnic. The Senate's proposed budget would cut funding for USF's main campus in Tampa by 58 percent, or $104 million. By comparison, the University of Florida would be cut by 26 percent and Florida State University would be cut by 22 percent, according to a USF analysis. The bull's-eye on USF can be seen from all over Tampa Bay, and the university's board of trustees held an emergency meeting Monday night to sound the alarm and mobilize.

Here's another way to look at this indignity. In the Senate's proposed budget, USF calculates the state would spend $4,741 per student at the University of Florida and $5,470 per student at Florida State. A USF student would be worth half as much, $2,401. That's a fine way to treat a top-tier research university with more than 40,000 students.

Subtlety has never been part of Alexander's political repertoire. For two years, the Lake Wales Republican has used the state budget to try to steal USF's new College of Pharmacy from the main campus and build its home in Lakeland. First Gov. Charlie Crist and then Gov. Rick Scott vetoed it. That hasn't stopped Alexander. Now the Senate's proposed budget for 2012-13 would let the Tampa campus keep the pharmacy school but take away the $6 million it has now to operate it. And USF would hand over all of the Lakeland campus' property and foundation money but keep paying $18 million for its faculty and staff. Cute.

This is the sort of political interference that gives Florida's universities a bad name. It makes it harder to recruit top-level faculty, and it makes it harder to recruit the best out-of-state students who pay higher tuition and add diversity. USF has made tremendous academic strides in recent years and is poised to leap even higher in health care and other areas. President Judy Genshaft and the university are major players in developing Tampa Bay's economy and creating jobs. Yet the Florida Senate would allow USF to be treated as a political pinata, absorbing 20 percent of the cuts for the entire state university system.

The discussion in Tallahassee should be focusing on why legislators promote the importance of higher education in building the state's economy, yet plan to cut spending on universities by hundreds of millions of dollars. The debate should be about how much to invest in higher education and compete with North Carolina and other states that have made that financial commitment. Instead the focus is on one powerful senator's obsession to create a new university and how far he will go to get his way.

The Senate Budget Committee meets Wednesday to consider the proposed budget. Who will speak up for USF and for fairness?