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Genshaft: Budget blatantly unfair

USF President Judy Genshaft sat still and expressionless, slowly sipping a Diet Coke as the bad news unfolded during an emergency Board of Trustees (BOT) meeting Monday – 72 percent of USF’s budget may no longer be freely at its disposal.

The Florida Senate proposed a 58 percent budget cut, as well as 14 percent claimed for Florida Polytechnic, that would take $128 million out of USF’s existing $178 million operating budget by July 1, said Mark Walsh, USF director of Governmental Affairs. This would be more than any of the other 11 universities in the State University System, which in total lost $400 million, he said.

Of the $128 million, Walsh said $79 million would be cut from the base budget. An additional $25 million would be held from USF to pay for the transfer of land and property to Florida Polytechnic University, the new name that USF Polytechnic will receive if it separates from the USF System.

USF would also pay an estimated $18 million for the absorption of USF Polytechnic faculty and students and $6 million to continue to operate the College of Pharmacy on the Polytechnic campus.

USF Tampa, which had a cash reserve of $121.2 million at the beginning of the summer before last year’s $22 million cuts, would be projected to have a balance of negative $52.7 million by July 1 if the budget cut passed, Chief Financial Officer John Long said. That would be in violation of Florida law, he said, which requires universities keep a cash reserve of at least 5 percent of general funds.

USF Tampa, Long said, which currently receives approximately $6,000 per full-time enrolled (FTE) student from the state, would now receive $2,400. Florida Polytechnic University, which was proposed in a bill by state Sen. Evelyn Lynn with support from state Sen. J.D. Alexander, would receive $32.7 million starting with no students, he said.

In comparison, UF would receive $4,741 per FTE with a 25.8 percent cut, while FSU would sustain a 22.3 percent cut and receive $5,470 per FTE.

“Is there any rational explanation for the seemingly disproportionate treatment of USF?” trustee Hal Mullis said.

“No,” Long said.

Long also said tuition increases would not offset the changes. The negative $52.7 million projection had been factored with $11 million coming in from additional tuition revenue and $6.3 million in Polytechnic student tuition that was no longer certain. Gov. Rick Scott expressed his opposition to raising tuition earlier this month.

“That’s a lot of bad news,” BOT Chairman John Ramil said.

Trustee Louis Saco said the cuts could destroy the surrounding community, as USF has a local economic impact of $3.2 billion.

“The ripple effect to the Tampa Bay area would be horrendous,” he said. “That would be a huge hit to that endeavor. Talking about attracting jobs to our area, USF has done that (and) will continue to do that. It’s just common sense. It cuts across the fabric of our community.”

Genshaft remained silent.

The trustees asked what this could mean for USF.

Graham Tobin, vice provost for Strategic and Budget Planning, said it could mean higher tuition rates, less access to classes, elimination of programs, the loss of faculty and “a cascade of spiraling effects.”

“I’m distressed, in a way, because I feel overnight they almost destroy what we’ve been doing for 10 years,” he said in an interview with The Oracle. “It’s time for us to mobilize. It’s unfair. The amount of money to be per student is worth less than other institutions? That’s not fair.”

Another BOT member asked about accreditation if the budget passed. Currently, all of USF’s branch campuses, with the exception of Polytechnic, have independent Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS) accreditation. The SACS committee is visiting campus in five days.

Kathleen Morris, a SACS representative for USF, said cuts would not be easy.

“If we have to close programs and put an end to activities we’re doing, some of that will have an impact on SACS accreditation,” she said. “I don’t believe there’d be a negative impact based on the lack of resources, but it would be hard to maintain current standing.”

Faculty Senate President and trustee Elizabeth Bird asked if SACS could intervene in what was “clearly political involvement” in the management of the University, making the first reference of the budget cut’s political implications.

Genshaft cracked a strained smile for the first time.

“Mark,” she said. “Do you anticipate we have two more weeks, (or) three more weeks to act to make changes in this draconian budget?”

Walsh said there would at least be 10 days to make changes before the bill was finalized, but at most three weeks.

“We have time for people to really do something for the Tampa Bay region,” Genshaft said, addressing the audience.

Ramil called to mobilize every USF student, faculty and staff member, who will all be receiving an email with a list of legislative contacts to call, and request for changes to be made to the budget.

“Clearly we know where the Senate budget chair stands,” he said. “But beyond that, we need to look at the other state legislators and ask for their help.”

USF spokesman Michael Hoad later said in an interview with The Oracle that Senate Budget Committee chairman Alexander plays an “enormous” role in dictating the funds allocated to each university.

“He has very real power over what each university gets,” he said. “He’s been in that position for a while, and he is without question a very powerful person.”

Genshaft, who told reporters after the meeting that the cuts were “blatantly unfair,” said the budget was not final, and there was time to make a difference.

“There’s a reason we use the term ‘unstoppable,'” she said. “This is not an institution that stands with a cloud over its head saying, ‘We can’t do anything.’ Reach out. Make calls. Send emails. Touch those you know and even those you don’t know that are our friends in the legislatures to change this draconian budget. We can change this. It is not a done deal. Don’t get scared and leave.”

Ramil closed the meeting with an aggressive tone and said that no political figure was stronger than an institution.

“This university has been under assault for the past several months,” he said. “You have to play the game for a while, but when the game starts to move you away from what’s right, you have to put your foot down. And we’ve said ‘Enough.'”

Additional Reporting by Jessica Velez