USF sends a message to capital

Published Sept. 19, 2012

University of South Florida president Judy Genshaft's upbeat "state of the university address'' on Wednesday served as a powerful reminder to Tampa Bay of the impact a major university makes on an urban community. Politically, though, it is a memo aimed at one reader: Gov. Rick Scott, who like other conservative governors around the nation cares more about how universities create jobs and stimulate the economy than about the value of a broad liberal arts education. Genshaft gave the governor who approved the theft of USF's Lakeland campus plenty to chew on.

The big news is USF's creation of a new health system, with Lakeland Regional Medical Center as the first hospital. After years of trying to build its own teaching hospital, USF has smartly pivoted to build partnerships and specialties that extend its influence and footprint in more innovative, cost-efficient ways. It has centers focused on Alzheimer's disease and diabetes research, and it is creating an institute specializing in personalized treatment and prevention of heart disease based on individual genetic codes. USF's new Center for Advanced Medical Learning and Simulation, or CAMLS, is open in downtown Tampa and is expected to draw 60,000 medical professionals a year for training. These are the sorts of partnerships and innovations that should be attractive to the bottom-line governor, who once ran the nation's largest for-profit hospital chain.

The new relationship with the Lakeland hospital is expected to create as many as 250 residency positions, and Genshaft suggested USF soon could have the largest residency program in the state as it continues existing programs at Tampa General Hospital and All Children's Hospital in St. Petersburg. The announcement also sends a strong message that USF is not retrenching after a nasty legislative fight that resulted in the foolish decision by Scott and the Legislature to allow USF Polytechnic to become an independent university with no students or accreditation. USF should continue to expand its reach as a positive regional force just as other Tampa Bay institutions are doing, from Tampa International Airport to the Port of Tampa to the Tampa Bay Partnership.

Genshaft pointedly listed other positive trends for USF: a record $411 million in contracts and grants; a top 10 ranking for all universities worldwide for U.S. patents for the second straight year; a small federal grant for another USF-led regional partnership to help new companies with new technologies. A more vigorous defense of a liberal arts education would have been useful, but Genshaft understands the importance of telling Tallahassee what it wants to hear.

The anemic economy and declining state support have public universities on the defensive. The University of Virginia just endured an ugly political fight over its president and the tension between innovation and more traditional values. The University of Florida is looking for a new president, and the state cut $300 million in higher education funding this year. Florida universities are losing top faculty members to other states, and USF will continue a hiring and spending freeze.

Yet instead of retreating, USF is adapting and expanding. Genshaft talked of the university's vision, solutions and accountability. Those same measures should apply to the governor and the Legislature on higher education, and they are falling short even as USF and other schools strive to excel.