Polytechnic bill creates friction

The Polk County Board of Commissioners decided not to support or oppose USF Polytechnic efforts to kill a bill that would immediately dissolve the branch campus.

Interim Regional Chancellor David Touchton, Regional Vice Chancellor James Payne, and USF Polytechnic student body President Damon Dennis spoke to county commissioners Tuesday at the Polk County Courthouse to convince them to oppose the current bill.

Commissioner Edwin Smith said making a stance would increase friction across the state.

“I don’t think this is the time the Polk County Commission needs to take sides in this and start giving somebody more arrows for their quiver,” he said. “We do not need any more arrows to be able to shoot on either side. This decision is above our pay rate. It’s going to be decided in Tallahassee and I think in the next three weeks it will be decided.” Smith said there is a trust issue between USF and state Sen. J.D. Alexander, R-Lake Wales, who supports the immediate separation of the Polytechnic campus from the USF System.

“Sen.Alexander doesn’t trust USF,” he said. “The students at USF don’t trust anybody. I don’t think anybody is going to throw USFP students out in the streets. I think you got to trust somebody and understand that they are going to do the right thing.”

Touchton said in an interview with The Oracle he was disappointed the commissioners did not take a stance, but “hopefully some of them will individually come back and support us going forward.”

Earlier in the year, the commissioners signed a resolution in support of USF Polytechnic’s transition to independence, but County Commission Chairman Sam Johnson said he doesn’t see them taking another stance.

While the commissioners did not make a stance as a whole, a few were concerned about the bill’s impact in the community.

Commissioner Melony Bell said she was willing to support rejecting the bill.

“I’m concerned with what is going on in the past two weeks,” she said. “I’m concerned for the students. They are in limbo. I am all in favor of becoming independent in its time, but I’m also all in favor of making sure that we continue to get funding for this university … if (it) went away, the investments that the county has done would be just devastating.”

During the meeting, Touchton and Dennis cited issues that would occur if the bill passes, such as the uncertainty of how USF Tampa would absorb all Polytechnic faculty, staff and students, as well as the College of Pharmacy located on the Lakeland campus.

Payne said it would be difficult to recruit faculty and students to an unaccredited institution and it takes a minimum of five years for accreditation.

According to the Miami Herald, Alexander said he expects to see an independent, accredited Polytechnic by summer, and that the accreditation committee could “expedite” the process if USF submitted documents to them by April.

Dennis said the students would become “educational refugees” if the bill passes and it is difficult to know if the 50 Polytechnic programs that the Tampa campus does not have would be added to continue the education of current Polytechnic students.

The meeting was held a day after news broke of a second Polytechnic Campus Board member, Ronald Morrow, resigning from his position.

In the resignation letter, he wrote that he was excited about the Board of Governor’s outlined conditions for Polytechnic independence, but was surprised to learn about Touchton firing employees without the board’s consent.

“Over the last few months I have become increasingly concerned and confused at the role campus board members have when everything is not running smoothly,” he wrote. “You can imagine my surprise and disappointment in picking up the newspaper and seeing the story concerning the dismissal of a number of major staff and faculty. This should have communicated direct with each of us.”

Touchton said he appreciates Morrow’s contribution, but stands by his January decision to eliminate three positions.

“The reason that was in the letter was that I had not shared some position cuts with them and I will make it very clear that I have no idea of acquiescing my operational authority,” he said. “I will not be sharing that information going forward.”

The Florida Senate is scheduled to discuss the Polytechnic bill Thursday.