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Trustees raise concerns over College of Education cuts

Among their frustrations, trustees emphasized the lack of communication between the board and USF administration when the plans to eliminate the College of Education’s undergraduate programs were announced in October. SPECIAL TO THE ORACLE

USF’s Board of Trustees (BOT) veered outside the lines of its agenda at a meeting Tuesday during which trustees quickly criticized the preliminary cuts to the College of Education’s (COE) budget.

Among the concerns raised during the discussion, trustee Byron Shinn brought up the lack of communication between administration and the trustees regarding the cuts. He said he found out about the news through a phone call with one of COE’s donors, a situation he described as “inappropriate” and “unsatisfactory.”

“I understand that we’re not closing down the college. However, I’m upset about the process and upset about communication,” said Shinn. 

“How we went about this is absolutely inconsistent with the history of my board and my involvement and I’m not pleased about it.”

The response following USF’s preliminary plan to eliminate all undergraduate programs from the COE and transition to a graduate program was overwhelming, leading to the creation of a petition that garnered almost 15,800 signatures, protests by former and current education students as well as superintendents, and school boards reaching out to trustee members to share their concerns.

Shinn said the feedback he received was overall negative, which marred the image of the university across school districts around the Tampa Bay area and among current and former students.

“We lit up the community in a bad way. I know I caught some flak and probably [so] did some of the others,” said Shinn.

Trustee Nancy Watkins also had a concerned response on the announcement of the preliminary plan and was similarly disturbed by the way the situation was handled.

“I have gotten a great deal of community feedback, which I can’t even respond to,” said Watkins. “I think that we need to consider the impact on this community, the need we have for public school teachers, and if it does not fit our strategic plan, then perhaps we ought to consider if our strategic plan is correct.”

Throughout the meeting, Watkins mentioned she felt the board needed additional understanding regarding budgetary decisions. She suggested all trustees participate in “budget workshops” before they are faced with the decision on whether or not to eliminate all undergraduate programs in December.  

“There’s going to be several things that we’re going to be asked to vote on in December that I don’t think we’re prepared to consider appropriately, and closing one of our 13 colleges is a major step, and getting rid of a bachelor’s degree is the lesser step, but the entire college is a major step,” said Watkins. “And I would like to put the brakes on that and study that a little bit more.”

Trustee Michael Griffin concurred with Watkins’ desire for some financial education for the board, mentioning that “time is of the essence.

“My hope is that we have either a workshop or some kind of further engagement with the board prior to [December] or close to that because you’re speaking from the finance side of things,” said Griffin. “We have meaningful areas that we need to realign and, candidly, some of these decisions I would have liked to see sooner.” 

The tentative December time frame was frequently referenced throughout the discussion, being a short amount of time for the BOT to have the ins and outs of the situation clarified. 

Any decisions regarding termination of undergraduate degrees must first go through the BOT, making clarity and communication on what the university plans to propose to the BOT a big area of concern. 

In multiple instances, Provost Ralph Wilcox emphasized how the plans were only preliminary and the university was acknowledging “the need to reimagine, reconfigure and right-size the budget of the college.”

“What we made very clear was that the University of South Florida was not looking to abandon education, or indeed, teacher education,” said Wilcox. 

“But rather than competing head to head with state colleges and other institutions, and incidentally … there are opportunities to complete a four-year degree in Hillsborough County, in education, but not in a public institution.”

Watkins acknowledged this and how she’s felt like the reality of the situation has not been made transparent enough.

“I’m being told nothing’s happening … yet I hear this word ‘reimagine’ over and over, ‘We’re going to reimagine the bachelor’s degree,’” said Watkins.

“‘Reimagine’ has one definition in that context, and it is to get rid of it. It’s not reimagined. And I’ve seen that in writing. I’ve seen it in public statements. Everything I’ve heard and seen in the public is very different than what I’m being told now.”

All questions and concerns will have to be addressed in the coming weeks as Interim Dean of the COE Judith Ponticell and her leadership team finalize details of the initial plan to eliminate the COE undergraduate degrees in what Wilcox emphasized were “preliminary targets” that were set for “strategic and resource realignment across the university.”

“[Ponticell and her team] are exploring and developing a proposed plan to bring to university leadership by the middle of December, prior to leadership reviewing that proposed plan and consulting with the Board of Trustees,” said Wilcox.

One of the other significant concerns for several trustees was how they found out about the decision in the first place.

“[When] I heard it I couldn’t believe it,” said Shinn. “I told [the donor], it must not be true. And then I called [the regional chancellor at the USF Sarasota-Manatee campus] and she told me it was true.”

Student Body President and trustee Claire Mitchell also showed disapproval of the lack of communication between trustees and university administration.

“I am frustrated that I had to hear this from my peers and not from administration, given the fact that I’ve gotten so many questions I cannot answer,” said Mitchell. 

Mitchell elaborated on why she believed eliminating the COE’s undergraduate programs would be a “disservice” for both the community and aspiring educators. 

The costs that would be forced onto those on the path to becoming a teacher in Hillsborough County played a big part in her argument. 

“Private colleges are expensive, and considering that teachers don’t make a lot on the other side if we’re being completely honest, I think it’s doing our community a disservice,” said Mitchell. 

“We’re requiring them to go to expensive institutions and require them to do a fifth-year program. Again, acquiring more costs and more debt when they’re already going to be struggling to pay debt on the opposite side, and that’s coming straight from a college student.”

Concerns came from both sides of the spectrum on this issue — the effects that this decision would have on the Tampa Bay community, but also how the university would manage such large budgetary cuts to compensate for an 8.5%, or $36.7 million, cut in state funding for the 2020-21 fiscal year. 

Trustee Les Muma emphasized how university leadership, including the provost, has taken on the significant task of cutting millions of dollars out of the university budget. 

“I just think we need to be careful on putting a challenge in front of the university and then telling them they can’t do it that way,” said Muma.

Trustee and Faculty Senate President Timothy Boaz expanded on Muma’s arguments, pointing out that cuts will be seen elsewhere if the university changes its current course of action in trying to satisfy a planned $13.4 million cut across all 13 colleges. 

“The magnitude of the cut is going to require eliminating programs as it’s set now — and if we don’t like that decision, we need to have a broader discussion about what the size of that cut should be for the College of Education,” said Boaz. “But we better be ready to talk about the College of Engineering and the College of Business and the rest of them because it has implications all the way across the board.”

Among remarks on how to weigh the pros and cons of the COE budgetary decisions, Muma suggested that the solution should lay in appealing to the State University System to maintain funds for USF’s undergraduate education programs.

“Maybe the right thing to do is to appeal to the state to fund this four-year bachelor program so we can survive without hurting our budget,” said Muma. “I don’t know if that’s an option, but we ought to consider it because this management team is up to their eyes on a budget issue.”

The relevance of these decisions was made even clearer during the public forum section of the Finance Committee meeting, when two education students and a current Hillsborough County schoolteacher spoke in front of the BOT asking the university to reconsider the expected COE degree terminations.

“This unilateral decision to eliminate the undergraduate program will damage the Tampa Bay community for generations to come,” said elementary education student Sarah Townsend. “Complete elimination means complete silence to the children that are being systematically pushed out of our schools. 

“I invite you to realize that this is a permanent solution to a temporary problem.”

Almost an hour of unscheduled discussion on this topic left the committee with no clear conclusion on a path forward, but circumstances call for a possible reconvening of the board before their time to make a decision arrives. 

“This whole [topic] has not yet shown up on any board agenda. Indeed, it was not even on today’s agenda,” said Watkins. “I thank the chair [Jordan Zimmerman] for recognizing the public issue we have in the Tampa Bay area and statewide on it before introducing it to this committee.

“I’m glad we’ve had this discussion, but I hope this discussion continues to its conclusion.”