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USF System regroups from state cuts

The USF Polytechnic campus will receive the funds needed to complete its first building, but Gov. Rick Scott’s announcement that vetoes and general appropriations to Florida’s budget were finalized Thursday came with deep cuts to the USF System.

The USF System’s Education and General (E&G) budget – comprised of state appropriations including taxpayer and lottery money, as well as student tuition funds – will be reduced from about $520 million in 2010-11 to about $495 million for the 2011-12 academic year. The budget for USF Tampa dropped from about $435 million to about $415 million.

Though the USF System lost about $22 million in federal economic stimulus money and approximately $24 million in general revenue, the state Legislature will re-inject $7.5 million into general revenue funds to help balance some of the E&G budget holes.

“That’s the hole we have to find ways to fill,” USF Provost Ralph Wilcox said. “What we’re seeing is that over time, we have seen state appropriations diminishing or eroding. The Legislature and the taxpayer has reduced its investment in USF and all public universities in the state of Florida.”

Wilcox said the USF Board of Trustees approved a tuition increase of 15 percent – a per-semester increase of $304 for undergraduates and a $408 increase for graduate students – Thursday to raise $14 million in new tuition revenue. This revenue, as well as the general revenue funds, will go into USF’s E&G budget.

Despite the tuition increase, the losses amount to approximately $25.3 million for the entire USF System. Additionally, Scott vetoed approximately $2.9 million in funds for utilities and infrastructure in the USF System – making USF one of six state universities not granted funding in this category.

“Certainly, we would prefer not to be increasing tuition,” Wilcox said. “We want to do all we can to optimize student access and student affordability. But by the same token, as state investment diminishes, students don’t go away – and we don’t want students to go away. The students remain with us and want to take the classes. They need to graduate on time, and we have to find a way to do that without the resources we’ve had in years past.”

To offset the tuition increase, Wilcox said USF will be setting aside $3.2 million for additional financial aid to assist new and returning students.

The “hole” still won’t be filled by tuition increases, he said, but the University will use its “rapidly depleting” cash reserve set aside for “tough” economic times.

Other sources of revenue will come from resources such as the USF Unstoppable campaign, which seeks private donations as well as research dollars, some of which were also line-item vetoed on Scott’s budget. However, Wilcox said the University would need to look into more comprehensive solutions.

“We are looking to implement more efficiently,” Wilcox said. “Some of those efficiencies will have a direct impact on students, and some won’t. There will be an impact, but we’re trying to minimize that. We are going to do our very best to ensure that students are the last part of the academic enterprise of the University to see the impact of this.”

He said some of the “efficiencies” students can expect to see are fewer and larger classes, shorter and more limited library hours and services, reduced programs and performances in the College of the Arts and fewer travel funds for students and faculty hoping to attend conferences. Faculty computers will be replaced on a less frequent basis as well.

In light of the state of the economy in Florida, Wilcox said it is harder for the University to attract the “best and brightest” in faculty and staff, who will be seeing a 3 percent reduction in their take-home salaries. That 3 percent will now be allocated towards pension plans the state will no longer cover.

USF Polytechnic, however, was the only Florida campus to receive capital funds this legislative season. Scott approved a $35 million allocation to the Polytechnic campus for the Phase 1 stage of their growth, citing Polytechnic’s “focus on the important high-tech fields of the future,” in his official statement.

Alice Murray, associate vice president of campus planning and facilities operations at USF Polytechnic, said the long-awaited funds came as a pleasant surprise in a year where nearly all other educational investments were cut, including $10 million to start a pharmacy school and $1 million for an interdisciplinary building on the campus.

The $35 million will go toward the completion of USF Polytechnic’s first building, the Science and Technology building.

“Obviously, there will be other needs for academic buildings that will require state funding,” Murray said. “We’ve been doing a lot of private fundraising (and) separate funding for our residence halls and interdisciplinary building until funding becomes available.”

Wilcox said Polytechnic’s gain is important for the USF System as a whole, as it will allow USF Tampa to focus on shaping the existing student population as opposed to adding new students. This year USF Tampa saw more than 25,000 applicants for 4,200 openings, he said.

Wilcox said the University’s goal is to focus on retaining and recruiting high-performing students as well as increasing the proportion of graduate students, despite the “continuing trend downward in state public investment in public education.”

Now, some of the students the Tampa campus does not accept may be able to attend classes at the Polytechnic campus.

“The USF System as a whole grows,” Wilcox said of the Polytechnic allocation. “We all have gained. Not one of the other 10 universities received a penny for capital projects. The fact of the matter is, is that we have a system-wide strategic plan, so that the growth of one campus will have a positive impact on the others.”