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Consolidation should not overshadow branch campuses

Under the preliminary plan revealed at the September Board of Trustees meeting, branch campuses would be heavily supervised by the Tampa campus. SPECIAL TO THE ORACLE

On Sept. 10, USF System President Steven Currall released an update detailing major steps in the process of consolidating USF’s three campuses—Tampa, St. Pete and Sarasota-Manatee.

The overarching theme of the update was collaboration and sharing.

Merging the campuses offers an opportunity to bust down internal walls of policy, practice and financing that have limited the full scope of resources USF students can access — a commendable achievement if carried out effectively.

The devil, however, is in the details. Under the preliminary plan revealed at the September Board of Trustees (BOT) meeting, branch colleges would be shepherded underneath Tampa campus colleges to create system-wide colleges. For example, St. Pete’s Tiedemann College of Business would become a school underneath Tampa’s Muma College of Business, with a “campus operational dean” located on the branch campus to oversee the school’s day-to-day needs, according to USF’s consolidation implementation plan.

In simpler terms, the branch campuses would have some governance over their respective colleges, but ultimate authority on academics would rest with Tampa campus.

This structure change, while relatively simple in concept, leaves stakeholders concerned. Per the Tampa Bay Times, state lawmakers like Rep. Ben Diamond (D-FL) and Sen. Jeff Brandes (R-FL) were dissatisfied with the framework upon its announcement, arguing it gives too much power to the Tampa campus.

Brandes went so far as to say it violates the intent of HB 7071, a state law signed this spring that required branch campuses to keep control of their activities. Faculty across campuses, meanwhile, have expressed their desires for clarity on what the changes will mean for their goals, roles and decision-making power.

One key element in the process involves matching admission standards and graduation rates across the three campuses. In the university’s consolidation plan, the BOT implies that both metrics will likely need improvement on the St. Pete and Sarasota-Manatee campuses for USF to maintain its preeminent status—and the millions of research dollars that accompany it—after consolidation.

It makes sense, then, why system leaders would put branch campuses’ academic departments under direct supervision from Tampa. A heavy-handed approach, however, runs the risk of alienating faculty and quashing local innovations.

USF Sarasota-Manatee, for instance, offers cross-registration with three local colleges in the Sarasota-Bradenton area through the Cross College Alliance (CCA), including New College of Florida and the Ringling College of Art and Design.

Projects like these fulfill consolidation’s overall goals by providing new learning experiences for USF students, yet it is unclear if the program will continue. The CCA is only mentioned five times in the 813-page consolidation plan, primarily in public comments.

A consolidated university structure should embrace innovative efforts like the CCA and allow each campus to pursue initiatives that work best for their local circumstances. Without a solid framework for balancing local control with system-wide priorities, such efforts might not be possible.

A range of options under the current consolidation plan offers opportunities to enhance branch campuses’ voices. St. Pete and Sarasota-Manatee have Campus Boards (similar to the system-wide Board of Trustees) that are currently only slated to hold an advisory role. The plan also calls for regional chancellors on each branch campus and “operational deans” in each branch school who will focus on non-academic activities.

Developing a process where any of these offices have some say in academics would help give branch campuses more autonomy.

Regardless of the exact mechanism, each branch campus must develop a plan to meet pre-eminence benchmarks. Those decisions should be made in collaboration with leaders, faculty and staff at USF St. Pete and Sarasota-Manatee, rather than going over their heads.

Diverse approaches to consolidation across campuses are assets, not liabilities. A balanced consolidation plan is one that empowers branch campuses to play to their strengths and meet preeminent standards in a way that works best for them.

Nathaniel Sweet is a senior majoring in political science.