Space for improvement

With enrollment expected to top 50,000 students in the next two years and a constantly increasing need for more research infrastructure, USF ranks last among all 11 state universities in the percentage of its classroom, research lab and teaching space needs met.

A statistical perfect storm – dwindling state resources for new building projects, increasing numbers of Floridians needing access to higher education and a constitutional amendment to reduce class sizes – has created an environment of heightened competition among Florida universities. Like other rapidly expanding metropolitan research universities, USF has fared poorly in its attempts to garner funding in proportion to its projected growth.

The above graph shows the current percentage (green) of projected classroom, research lab and teaching lab space for Florida state universities. Also shown is the additional space each university has received funding for in the next five years (yellow). USF ranks last among the state universities for space needs met. Source: Board of Governors

According to the Board of Governors, USF has built or received approval from the state legislature to build just 43 percent of its projected need for classroom, teaching and research labs for 2011-2012, when USF administrators project enrollment will approach 58,000.

“There’s no way that we have adequate need met in just 2007, let alone in 2011 and 2012,” Vice Provost Ralph Wilcox said. “It just seems to me that those making decisions in Tallahassee need to recognize that fact.”

“No easy solutions”

Other young metropolitan research universities, such as the University of Central Florida and Florida International University, also have a wide disparity between their projected need and their existing infrastructure, while other universities – such as Florida State University, FAMU and the University of Florida – have nearly 100 percent of their projected space needs met.

In some cases, the state has approved funds for institutions to build infrastructures that surpass their projected needs. The Legislature and BOG have approved FAMU’s construction of teaching labs at a pace that outstrips its space needs by 31 percent – or 131 percent of its projected need, according to the BOG. Similarly, Florida Gulf Coast University has received approval to construct 151 percent of its needed research labs, according to the BOG.

“This raises some very important questions,” Wilcox said. “Why on Earth is the state continuing to build on campuses that are at 100 percent … when there are institutions, and it’s not just USF, that are growing and have no new infrastructure?”

Some good reasons exist for the differences in the numbers, said BOG Director of Communications Bill Edmonds. Older universities such as UF and FSU have had more time to build the up the needed infrastructure to accommodate large numbers of students. Additionally, institutions need to upgrade their facilities to continue to provide state-of-the-art learning environments and keep up with the facility upgrades in peer institutions around the country.

“It’s a balancing act,” Edmonds said. “There are no easy solutions.”

More students,fewer dollars

The heightened competition for funds promises to grow worse before it gets better. For the 2008-2009 fiscal year, the Office of Economic and Demographic Research predicts a steep decline (from $1.4 billion to $386 million) in the amount of utility tax revenues made available to universities for building projects – so-called Projected Education and Capital Outlay (PECO) funds – that account for nearly 60 percent of the funds appropriated to universities for facility construction and renovation.

Several factors account for this projected drop, including falling tax revenue on fuel costs, which are projected to drop from levels that ballooned in 2005 and 2006. Also, a greater amount of funds funneled toward paying down the debt on bonds issued to finance past PECO projects, according to a report from the Florida Legislature’s Office of Program Policy Analysis and Government Accountability (OPPAGA). Additionally, the report states that compliance with the class-size amendment by 2010 – estimated to cost between $20 billion and $30 billion – will generate increased competition for PECO funds.

At the same time, demographic experts anticipate the number of students enrolled in Florida universities will increase approximately 3 percent per year over the next five years, creating more than 50,000 additional students – roughly equivalent to the number of students at the University of Florida – by the 2011-2012 academic year. Within USF, the competition among branch campuses for funds heightens the difficulties for USF Tampa to fund projects needed for its anticipated expansion, Wilcox said.

“There is necessarily a competitive climate both across the state and within institutions,” Wilcox said.

A 2001 Florida statute requires the USF Board of Trustees to submit four separate lists of prioritized capital improvement projects – one each for USF St. Petersburg, USF Tampa and USF Lakeland, USF Health, and USF Sarasota – to the Legislature every year. Additionally, the BOG, which recommends what it considers the State University System’s (SUS) highest-priority projects to the Legislature, requires USF to create a prioritized PECO list for USF Tampa and all of the regional campuses. The highest-priority projects on this list – which have already received BOG approval – include a $34 million Visual and Performing Arts Center, and a $62 million interdisciplinary science research teaching facility at USF Tampa, and $9 million for a science and technology center at USF St. Pete, as well as nearly $70 million for infrastructure upgrades.

No room for research?

The University has a particularly acute need in the area of research labs, where USF – the second-leading researchuniversity in the state – has just 26 percent of its projected need for research labs currently met, and no PECO funds approved for future projects, according to the BOG.

“It’s a disgrace,” Wilcox said.

The lack of research lab space has made it difficult to hire faculty in the sciences because USF just doesn’t have the necessary space for them to continue their research, Wilcox said. Additionally, USF aspires to join the prestigious Association of American Universities (AAU), a goal the University can achieve only if it expands its infrastructure to a level that approaches the other member institutions, like UF.

“It’s going to take sustained effort, some fiscal creativity, and most importantly, more state funding, to get us to that point,” Wilcox said.

USF exercised some of this fiscal creativity when it opened two new buildings in 2005, which added more than 230,000 square feet of research space and cost more than $45 million. Although the move provided USF with needed research space, it was funded without any state money, which meant USF had to finance the project itself and pay down its debt by renting the space to University departments and private companies.

“But that’s hurting us even more in the competitive stakes,” Wilcox said. “Now we’re having to redirect precious research revenues to support scientists,professors, graduate and undergraduate students who are conducting research at the University of South Florida. But other universities competing with us for those top researchers don’t.”

The undergrad impact

USF’s inability to meet its space needs also has implications for current and future students’ access to classes. It reduces the number of qualified students that USF can accept each semester and also lowers graduation rates, since fewer options for classes makes it more difficult to schedule the 12 to 15 hours per semester needed to graduate in four years or less.

USF has attempted to create more joint use of classroom and research facilities to mitigate the problem, Wilcox said. Additionally, they have increased the number of classes offered online and housed classes in alternate facilities, such as the University Mall. But these efforts have only marginally reduced the effects of the space crunch, Wilcox said.

“Students are going to have to realize that if they want to graduate in four years or less, they may have to give up a few mornings to take a class at 8 or 9 or stay late to take some classes,” Wilcox said.

Another OPAGAA report recommended that universities schedule more classes at non-peak times, like Fridays, weekends, early mornings and evenings, and provide incentives, such as a lower cost per credit hour, for students who opt to take classes at those times. This plan met with some success at the University of Oregon, where the university reported more than 25 percent of students took advantage of a 15 percent reduction in tuition rates for classes scheduled outside non-peak times.

Renovation and faculty frustration

The needs of USF stem not only from its projected expansion, but also from critical improvements and renovations to existing buildings, especially those housing liberal arts departments. A remodeling of the Fine Arts and Physics buildings are needed, Wilcox said.

Those projects, however, have a lower priority than some faculty members would like. The faculty senate has organized a committee, chaired by professor Steven Tauber, to create senate recommendations on the highest-need projects. The remodeling projects for the Fine Arts and Physics buildings rank 19th and 20th, respectively, on the prioritized list of PECO projects.

Ultimately, Wilcox said the state should reevaluate its priorities and place a greater emphasis on need when it determines which universities receive PECO funds.”Politically, they don’t focus only on need,” Wilcox said. “One could argue reasonably that if they were focusing only on need, they wouldn’t recommend any new construction for campuses that already meet or exceeded 100 percent of space needs met.”