When USF St. Petersburg received accreditation from the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS) in June 2006, it seemed the six-year history of power struggles between USF St. Pete and USF Tampa were laid to rest.
But faculty at USF St. Pete showed that tensions about autonomy still exist, with barrages of questions fired at USF President Judy Genshaft and Board of Trustees member Lee Arnold on Friday in a packed meeting that bubbled with some of the vitriol and deep-seated animosities of conflicts past.
Genshaft’s presentation of the University’s 2007-2012 Strategic Plan at the St. Pete campus met with more than an hour’s worth of questions from a standing-room only crowd of more than 200 people, many of whom feared the plan could usurp some of their campus’s authority and mark the first step toward the loss of accreditation. The meeting echoed of past battles over control that came to a head with the resignation of former USF St. Petersburg President Bill Heller in the summer of 2002.
“I think that the colonial model here is apt,” said Ray Arsenault, a professor of history at USF St. Pete. “Imposing central authority didn’t work that well for King George III, and I don’t think that it will work out that well for (USF Tampa) either.”Instead of threatening (the St. Petersburg faculty) with intrusive centralization, it seems to me the administration and the Board of Trustees should be over here examining how we’ve been able to do so much with so little,” he said.
Genshaft and Arnold spent much of Friday’s meeting pleading with the audience to understand that nothing in the plan – which focuses around positioning USF for membership in the prestigious American Association of Universities (AAU) – represented a threat to their accreditation.
“We have worked tirelessly with you for that accreditation,” said Genshaft. “There is no way we’re going to do anything but keep that accreditation strong and healthy.”Why would we have worked so hard over so many years if we didn’t want to see it continue?” she said.
Many in the audience – which included St. Petersburg mayor Rick Baker and Heller, who currently serves in the Florida House of Representatives – greeted Genshaft’s statements with doubt.
Jay Sokolovsky, a USF St. Petersburg professor of anthropology, said he thought the move to centralize authority represented an attempt to treat USF St. Petersburg like all the other regional campuses.
“It seems to me that when things are centralized, it really stifles a campus like ours,” said Sokolovsky. “I really think that this is the wrong direction to take.”
Eric Odgaard, an assistant professor of psychology at USF St. Pete, questioned the exclusion of USF St. Pete faculty from the strategic plan’s drafting process. He said he had no knowledge of the plan until November, when he received an e-mail asking for feedback on the ninth draft of the plan.
During the meeting, USF St. Pete faculty members also said St. Petersburg faculty senate President Gary Patterson was the only person to receive invitations extended to the September and October collaborative planning meetings when the heart of the plan was decided – though Patterson was unable to attend. Furthermore, the invitations were extended by e-mail only.”It contained explicit language about one university with one budget and one goal,” Odgaard said following the meeting. He added that in subsequent drafts, such language was removed.
“It was all about centralized control,” Odgaard said.
Genshaft said administrators from USF St. Pete were involved in the planning process and that the decisions regarding invitees came from lists compiled by each division of the University.
“The St. Pete campus was represented at the first meeting, the second meeting, the third meeting, the fourth meeting,” said Genshaft, who did not dispute the claim that no faculty attended the initial planning meetings. “That’s basically what I can say. They were there.”
A memo circulated by Provost Ralph Wilcox also came under fire at the meeting. It stated that the USF Tampa campus must “compete” with USF Health and other regional campuses for state funds for new building projects.
“How does this idea of being competitive effect the values of the plan and its implementation?” said Deanna Michaels, an associate professor in the College of Education at USF St. Pete.
Following the meeting, Wilcox said the reaction to his memo was unfortunate, but that nothing in it had factual inaccuracies. The dynamic of competition necessarily results from a decision by the Legislature and the Board of Governors to require separate building improvement plans from each campus, Wilcox said in an e-mail.
“(The BOG and the Legislature) have placed USF in the unenviable position of having to juxtapose the extensive instructional and research space priorities of the Tampa campus against the enrollment growth needs of the regional campuses,” Wilcox also said in the e-mail.
Much flack also surrounded Genshaft’s plan to put USF St. Pete’s Poynter Memorial Library and all other USF libraries under the centralized control of one dean, a move that would usurp some of the decision-making authority of the St.Pete library’s current dean.
Chris Meindl, chair of the USF St. Petersburg campus library committee, read a prepared statement from the committee condemning Genshaft’s plan as a serious threat to the St. Pete campus’s compliance with SACS accreditation and a move that would significantly weaken the library’s ability to meet student and curricular needs.
“(The committee) was stunned to learn of the recent action initiated … that would force (the St. Petersburg library dean) to surrender all significant decision-making authority to a Tampa-based supervisor … the loss of such control would be disastrous for students and faculty,” Meindl said.
Genshaft said making all libraries report to one dean represented an important step toward positioning USF for membership in the Association of Research Libraries (ARL), which she said would be a major steppingstone for inclusion in the AAU. Genshaft also said the new reporting structure would not have any major effect on St. Pete’s library.
“Why would we go into a well-functioning and well-operating unit and dismantle it? You’re all assuming the worst,” Genshaft said.
But J.M. Tschiderer, a member of the USF St. Pete Library Committee, said centralizing control would have little effect on USF’s aspirations for ARL inclusion, and that needs for more funding for more volumes and more library space must be addressed.
“When you compare USF with other libraries in the ARL, we are far behind in the size of our collections, the space we have for our libraries and the funds they receive,” Tschiderer said after the meeting. “It was very perplexing to us why the first step was centralizing authority. That’s not the best way to move forward. The heart of the matter is resources.”
When asked by USF St. Pete student Ged Helm whether she would sacrifice the St. Pete library for admission into the ARL and the increased chance for AAU membership it would carry, Genshaft said St. Pete’s accreditation had priority.
“You want to know what has priority?” Genshaft said. “SACS accreditation has priority. We would never do anything to jeopardize that.”
Following the meeting, Arsenault said Genshaft alleviated some of his concerns with her statements about the priority of SACS accreditation, but that USF St. Petersburg needs continued vigilance.
“President Genshaft said a lot of the right things today,” Arsenault said. “We’re glad to hear that they have no intention of doing anything that would jeopardize our accreditation. But we’re going to hold her to it.”