After months of discussion among Polk County community leaders and USF Polytechnic officials, the possibility of USF losing one of its four campuses reached the Board of Governors (BOG), but raised more questions.
In a unanimous vote Thursday, BOG members, who oversee the 11 Florida public universities, asked for more information to make a decision at their next meeting in November.
At the Thursday BOG meeting, Regional Chancellor Marshall Goodman said there are drawbacks to remaining in the USF system. With a separation, the university can expand on science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) programs, he said.
“Florida ranks 33rd in the United States for STEM jobs,” he said during the meeting. “It’s got to be a national priority. It needs to be a Florida priority. Here we are – a polytechnic. We are all about STEMs.”
Of the 15 programs he pitched to the USF Board of Trustees (BOT) last year, Goodman said three were approved. He said if a separation occurs, Polytechnic would have its own BOT to approve programs.
During Goodman’s presentation, Polytechnic was compared to other technical schools.
According to his presentation, Virginia Tech had 84 percent of its students enter a career or graduate program by graduation. California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo had 81 percent of its graduates receive a full-time job or attend graduate school within three months of graduation. After nine months, 97 percent of Cal Poly students had full-time jobs in their field.
But, for board member John Temple, those statistics do not explain how Polytechnic’s separation would impact Florida.
“I don’t understand how a polytechnic institute helps the state of Florida,” he said. “I’ve got this thing here that says we got some kind of comparison between Cal Poly, Berkeley and UCLA. I want to know how polytechnic institutes help the state of Florida. Is it like Cal Poly (and) California?”
State legislators J.D. Alexander, Chair of the Senate Budget Committee, Chair of the House Innovations Subcommittee Kelli Stargel, and member of the House Appropriations Committee Seth McKeel, are in support of the split.
“My home is in Polk County,” McKeel said during the meeting. “My family has been in Lakeland for five generations. One of the challenges of all of the folks in every one of those generations have been that people who are in Lakeland or in Polk County typically leave our county to go somewhere else because that is where there are opportunities. (I want to) change that culture.”
While supporters have said Polk County would benefit economically, Temple said there are current financial problems that should be addressed along with the split.
“I would urge you hometown legislators to sit in and understand what our problems are and help us,” he said. “We talked about the fact that all of our PECO (Public Education Capital Outlay) money all went to (Polytechnic) and we can’t fix (all universities’) roofs. If we go forward with this, there has got to be another funding source or our roofs are all going to leak and our buildings are going to fall apart. That has to be part of this study.”
During the BOG discussion, members asked how State University System (SUS) funding will be affected.
“I wonder how the 12th university would affect the 11 other (Florida) universities and how we can expand the base for more funding. I have not heard that yet … I have not heard a solution,” said board member Gus Stavros.
During the meeting, BOG Chancellor Frank Brogan said answers to these questions will be compiled in time for the November meeting.
“We will begin to work … immediately,” he said. “If, in fact, the Board of Governors were to approve this in November, then it would go immediately into the legislative cycle.”
However, Brogan said there could be a “domino” effect.
“There are a rather large number of branch campuses all over the state of Florida who could make, while different, a compelling, similar case for their institution,” he said. “Independence is a wonderful thing … but we also have to be mindful of the existing 11, and we also need to be very careful that we are not unintentionally giving off a domino opportunity for others to simply say, ‘OK, all we have to do is come forward, prepare something unique, get legislative support, get community support and put in place our next request to do the same thing.'”
On Sept. 6, the Polytechnic Student Government Association (SGA) issued a survey for the 1,300 Polytechnic students to weigh in on the potential split.
Of the 188 that responded, 84 percent said they were against a separation and 66 percent said they would not continue attending the university if the split occurred.
The survey results stated that students attend the Lakeland campus because the USF brand is well known and the location was convenient for students who cannot commute to the Tampa campus.
SGA president Kathryn Bevilacqua said in an email to BOG Chairwoman Ava Parker that if members voted in favor of the split from the USF system, there should be a transitional plan for current students.
“This transitional plan would allow students currently enrolled at the time of the separation to be grandfathered under the current affiliation with the University of South Florida and have the USF name attached to their diplomas,” she said. “This will meet the expressed expectations of the current students and fulfill the implied promises of the school when the students enrolled.”
SUS Board member Michael Long, a student representative who is the student body president at New College, said in an interview with The Oracle that the results of the student poll would not be a “deciding factor” in the BOG decision.
“That’s just my honest opinion,” he said. “There are so many other factors playing into this.”
Long said he understands why students would want a degree from USF.
“You need to look at current financial times,” he said. “The benefit of being part of a large university … is that you can pull your resources and use what the other larger campuses have. Then, when you look at the drawbacks, for example, the USF Polytechnic brought to the USF Board of Trustees a proposal for 15 new academic programs at the Polytechnic campus and they only received three. I guess that’s where this argument lies because USF Polytechnic wants to have this distinctive mission.”
Long, a sophomore majoring in environmental law, said New College was once a USF branch as well.
During the 1970s, New College separated from USF to become a private honors college, he said. After having financial difficulties, the school rejoined the USF system, but in 2001 separated again.
Long said Polytechnic, which was founded in 1988, is in a different scenario than New College was years ago.
“We sort of had our own rankings and people knew of us because we were a very small liberal arts school with a different mission than USF,” he said. “Because New College has been around since 1964, it’s a little bit different from the Polytechnic scenario. So, right now … not being part of USF does not have an effect on me.”
The initiative will be discussed during the BOG meeting, which will be held Nov. 9-10 at Florida Atlantic University.