When USF Polytechnic students checked their email accounts Friday morning, they received a notice that USF President Judy Genshaft was coming to the Lakeland campus to speak.
Tensions were high. The day before, the Senate passed a conforming bill that would immediately turn USF Polytechnic into the independent Florida Polytechnic University once passed by the House of Representatives and Gov. Rick Scott.
In November, the Board of Governors set nine criteria for the campus to meet before it would be allowed to separate; however, the bill bypasses those standards and calls for all remaining faculty members and students to be absorbed into the USF System.
Yet Genshaft came with words of encouragement for the packed room on the branch campus.
“We’re not going to leave you,” she said.
If the bill, proposed by Sen. Evelyn Lynn, R-Ormand Beach, is passed, students can choose to graduate with a degree from USF or Florida Polytechnic University, she said.
Though no concrete plans are in place, Genshaft said additional funds in USF’s budget will help the University maintain a presence in Lakeland, should USF Polytechnic become Florida Polytechnic University.
Damon Dennis, Polytechnic student body president, said Polytechnic’s Student Government Association (SGA) will continue to oppose the bill.
“Nothing is set in stone,” he said. “She said, ‘We’ll stay in Lakeland,’ but where are you going to find a school-sized empty building? We can’t just be like, ‘There’s a chance that everything might work out so don’t worry about it.’ It’s like taking your life savings to Vegas.”
For the current Polytechnic students, the campus has been a breeding ground of uncertainty. Just last summer, it seemed like Polytechnic was prospering.
The Lakeland Ledger ran a large advertisement from the campus on June 5 thanking state leaders including Sen. JD Alexander, R-Lake Wales, for allocating funds for its new campus to be located at the Interstate 4 corridor.
“We want to thank all of our supporters, in particular our wonderful Polk legislative delegation, and especially Senator JD Alexander, whose vision for our region inspires and energizes us all,” it said.
Last year, the state Legislature and Scott approved a $35 million investment to create the first permanent building at Polytechnic. The campus was the only campus in Florida to receive capital funds.
But a letter addressed to Board of Governors (BOG) chairwoman Ava Parker was sent from 30 Polk County community leaders that listed the benefits an independent Polytechnic university could bring to the state.
Jennifer Hazen, a senior majoring in psychology, remembers the somber atmosphere of the first day of school last fall.
“Instead of everybody being excited to start a new semester, we were all like, ‘Here we go. We don’t know what this semester is going to bring,'” Hazen said. “(Professors) were doing everything they could to soothe us. Why is it that suddenly we’re not good enough?”
A July 23 email to students from then-Regional Chancellor Marshall Goodman confirmed the rumors.
“Conversations are currently taking place throughout the community regarding the need for Florida’s first and only public polytechnic to be independent,” it said. “I encourage each of you to refrain from participating in the debate.”
After students voiced their concerns about being left out, Goodman announced he would attend the next SGA Senate meeting.
“When Goodman came to the Senate meeting, it was a defining moment,” Dennis said. “Every question he was asked he would go on with a story about the greatness of the Polytechnic. No one is against Polytechnic. Everyone is against the split at the time. To me it became very clear this was going to happen. When I asked Goodman he said he had no opinion.”
However, during a September BOG meeting, Goodman and Alexander advocated for the split. SGA was not involved in the split discussions before the meeting.
David Touchton, who became interim regional chancellor after Genshaft removed Goodman from his position over the winter break, told students to use their voices, Hazen said.
“He is encouraging us,” she said. “He said, ‘You have a voice. Use it. Let everybody hear you.'”
Groups of Polytechnic students have traveled to Tallahassee twice since the bill was announced to lobby to keep Polytechnic a part of the USF System. Yet the 21 Polytechnic students who sat in the Senate chambers Thursday left disappointed and shocked.
Hazen said a lot has changed since The Ledger advertisement ran last summer.
“(We thanked Alexander for what) he did to help us get the money for our campus, which would have allowed us to do everything that they want Florida Polytechnic University to do,” she said. “So, here it is barely six months later, and I guarantee you there is not a single student that wants to thank that man today.”