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Campus on the water looks to gradually gain autonomy

ST. PETERSBURG — The situation is reminiscent of a young person who has just left home for college.

The new student lives alone for the first time, feeling free and independent. But there is a link to the home and to the family. Always thinking of the student as their child, the parents continue to help pay expenses. Both parents and student lay awake at night, wondering whether the student will fail and have to return home.

Thus are the circumstances with USF St. Petersburg as it endeavors to reach its goal of autonomy and separate accreditation. It is this goal that has been a focal point of faculty and student discussions on the waterfront campus for months. Those desires were reflected Wednesday when the Task Force on Campus Planning unveiled its planning statement during a town meeting.

“As an integral and complementary part of a multi-campus university, USF St. Petersburg retains a separate identity and mission while contributing to and benefiting from the associations, cooperation and shared resources of a national research institution,” the mission statement said.

In the planning statement’s list, goal No. 1 seeks that very goal of strengthened governance and autonomy and separate accreditation.

“Yes, we are a part of (the) Tampa (campus),” faculty member Mike Killenberg, who presented the plan, said. “But we are also a separate university.”

Killenberg gave the audience of faculty, students and community leaders an update on the accreditation process. According to Killenberg, a detailed application was sent in August 2001 to the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools. In February 2002, SACS asked USF St. Petersburg to answer a series of “detailed questions.”

“They weren’t sure if the campus was sufficiently autonomous,” Killenberg said.

Answers to the questions were sent back to SACS, and USF St. Petersburg is awaiting a response.

Killenberg said if USF St. Petersburg achieves autonomy, dozens of things may change. He said the campus could have greater control over curriculums, course syllabi, admissions and faculty tenure and promotion.

“I don’t think the changes will be wholesale,” Killenberg said. “(But) without autonomy, we have to have permission.”

Some at USF St. Petersburg have argued in the past that USF leaders don’t want the campus to have its autonomy. Those arguments came to a head in June 2002 when USF President Judy Genshaft forced St. Petersburg Campus Executive Officer Bill Heller from his position after 10 years and replaced him with interim CEO Ralph Wilcox, who had served in her office.

A controversy ensued in which some faculty said Genshaft replaced Heller in an attempt to keep the campus from earning autonomy. Genshaft traveled to St. Petersburg and emphatically denied those accusations.

Killenberg said he does not feel there is opposition from the university’s highest levels, but that some “department level reluctance and resistance” exists.

“(Some people at the Tampa campus) are entrenched in doing things a certain way,” Killenberg said. “It’s very hard for people (in Tampa) to get used to the fact of autonomy.”

Killenberg said in due time he sees no reason for the USF Board of Trustees to oversee the St. Petersburg campus. He said in five to 10 years, the university could be completely autonomous.

“There are a lot of people who would disagree with me, but I think that day will come,” Killenberg said.

The rest of the USF St. Petersburg strategic plan was not unlike those of other universities. It calls for “excellence and distinctiveness” in the development of academic programs. In addition, it encourages diversity and lays out conduct statements.

Among those statements is one that calls for “academic freedom and responsibility.” With academic freedom a current hot-button issue throughout USF, Killenberg said a good bit of discussion went in to using the word “responsibility.”

“You’d like to think (academic freedom would be) done responsibly,” Killenberg said.

Another common thread throughout the plan was a call for a greater sense of community throughout the campus. Since its creation in 1965, USF St. Petersburg has been known as a commuter school. Now, with talk of the campus’ first residence halls, leaders want a sense of community.

Key among those leaders is former BOT member and recently appointed USF St. Petersburg Board of Trustees member Gus Stavros. Stavros spoke up from the audience on the subject of campus life.

“Where is the life on this campus?” Stavros said. “It’s not here. It has to be here.”