As state legislators enter a “cool down” period before voting on the House of Representatives and Senate’s joint budget proposal Friday, USF President Judy Genshaft breathed a sigh of relief.
In a proposal to cut $300 million from the State University System, USF got word Monday that it could see $44.9 million cut from the USF System’s base budget – a stark improvement from the Senate’s original proposal to cut almost $120 million from the system.
However, the House and Senate also agreed to immediately dissolve USF Polytechnic and create Florida Polytechnic University.
“The outpouring for fairness and equity was heard, and we were treated very fairly, ultimately,” Genshaft said to reporters Tuesday. “Nobody likes cuts, but we know the state is not in the best budget shape right now and that everybody has to take their portion. The outcome is that we are being treated similarly to other research universities in the state, and our cuts are no more than any other university of similar size and similar dimension as we are.”
USF Tampa, which received a 21 percent reduction to its base budget, is facing a smaller total cut than Florida State University, which could lose 27 percent of its budget, and the University of Central Florida, which could lose 24 percent.
Genshaft said she was “absolutely thrilled” with the Legislature’s allocations of $1.9 million to USF’s oceanography program and $6.9 million in PECO funds to create a cardiovascular institute with the Florida Hospital Pepin Heart Institute.
But at the center of the Legislature’s focus in higher education appropriations was USF Polytechnic, the branch campus that Sen. Evelyn Lynn, R-Ormond Beach, and Sen. JD Alexander, R-Lake Wales, wanted to see dissolved immediately and converted into a 12th public university.
The bill to create the university, proposed in the last five minutes of a Senate budget subcommittee meeting, initially called for USF to pay for all transition costs for the creation of the new university and returned all existing faculty, students and the College of Pharmacy to the USF System.
After a series of amendments and additions, USF will now receive $6 million – the amount allotted in years prior – for the College of Pharmacy and will be given $10 million to assist in the absorption of Polytechnic faculty and students, who will be able to complete their degrees at the existing Lakeland facility shared with Polk State College.
“As it stands right now, USF will be in Lakeland, and we will be phasing students out there,” Genshaft said. “After this year, we will not accept more students there, but those who have been admitted will be permitted to attend, and those that are already there will finish out with a USF degree. If it takes them longer (than the five-year phase out plan), it takes them longer, but we will be there for them and the campus will shut down when they’re done.”
Polytechnic Regional Chancellor David Touchton said USF Polytechnic has closed its admissions process and is no longer accepting students.
The budget and conforming bill, which passed both the House and Senate with few vocal objections, now has to be approved by Gov. Rick Scott, who has expressed doubt in creating a 12th public university.
Under the current bill, the new Florida Polytechnic University would be created next year with no students, faculty or accreditation.
Mike Nacrelli, a Polytechnic senior majoring in psychology, said he is relieved that the students have been given a sense of security but said the process left its mark.
“I’m glad to see the presence of USF students stay longer,” he said. “I think this could be a really good fitting. I’m still disappointed, because I feel like Polk County has been given a black eye. The Tampa Bay region is fed up with us as a county because of the dirty politics that were played.”
Nacrelli said he doesn’t think USF gave up the fight for Polytechnic too soon.
“Because (USF Tampa’s) interests far outweigh (Polytechnic’s) interests, I feel (efforts to fight for Poly) were sufficient,” he said. “We were always No. 2, but that’s OK, because the mother ship is far more important to the Tampa Bay region than our campus, not to say it doesn’t hurt on a personal level.”
Genshaft said it is still unclear how the cuts could impact the USF System.
“We still are not done,” she said. “There is one more component that we need to finish out, and that’s the Board of Governors. Will the BOG allow universities across the state to apply the differential tuition, and that will make a big difference in the amount of the cut we’ll have to take. That is up to the BOG.”
The House passed a bill last week that would allow the University of Florida and FSU to increase their tuition freely to the market rate, unlike the other state universities, which are able to raise tuition up to a 15 percent cap.
But the 15 percent increase, Genshaft said, adds up to about $10 million earmarked for undergraduate education that could help recover some of the losses that would eat into USF’s cash reserves if the budget is passed.
“We hope it will be a one-time scenario,” she said. “This is not the first cut we’ve had to take in the past five to six years. It’s been over a $100 million cut to our budget. We’re down to the skeleton now, and where does that bone come from next time?”
But for now, she said, USF is “thankful.”
“It is the best-case scenario for us,” she said. “If we didn’t start out with the whole State University System being cut $300 million, we would have had a better scenario. But given the circumstances of where we were, and the fact that there was a formula applied, it’s fair. We couldn’t ask for more.”