Supporters of independence for USF Polytechnic in Florida have won a crucial vote by the university system Board of Governors. But they didn’t get everything they wanted.
Board members voted 12 – 3 in favor of splitting Polytechnic from the University of South Florida…but not right away. USF Polytechnic has to jump over some hurdles before it becomes Florida’s 12th university.
It was as much drama as you can get at a Board of Governors meeting. In one corner was USF President Judy Genshaft. Up until then, she’d been pretty quiet about the proposed loss of one of USF’s branch campuses.
But Thursday in front of the Board of Governors, she came out swinging.
“This is not the right time, either economically, educationally, or practically for a drastic change to the USF system,” Genshaft said.
“It’s time to set the record straight.”
She challenged the criticism that USF was holding the new polytechnic school back. She noted that USF helped begin the transformation three years ago, from USF Lakeland to a school focused on science, technology, engineering and math.
In the other corner was the state Senate’s budget chief, J.D. Alexander. The Lake Wales lawmaker is the single most powerful force behind the independence drive.
“It has been torturous at every step of the way to see these programs actually granted,” he said.
He said USF had neglected Polk County for years, and the only reason there’s any money for USF Polytechnic is because he got it for them.
“The reality is not what’s billed. The reality is, it’s been virtually impossible to get the program arrays, to hire the faculty, to recruit the students,” Alexander said.
Alexander had a powerful friend backing him up. State Senator Don Gaetz reminded the Board of Governors that he wanted an independent Polytechnic…and that they’d soon be needing favors from him.
“As the incoming president of the Senate, I hear it said every year, from people sitting at this table and from the people you hire to come and talk to me — that the best investment in economic development and the future of Florida is higher education,” he said.
“And like Senator Alexander, I believe that. But if that’s true when you lobby me, then it’s doubly true when the Polytechnic team makes its convincing and compelling case to you,” Gaetz said.
Students and faculty at USF Polytechnic are trying to make the case that they’re opposed to split. Richard Yost, who represents university faculty on the Board of Governors, read a warning by a USFP faculty member about what would happen if this passed.
“The current feeling of chaos by the faculty, students and staff, resulting from a perceived disenfranchisement and a feeling of not having their opinions valued will grow, putting the future success of the campus in jeopardy,” Yost said.
And then, there’s the cost.
“First of all, as you know, this thing is messed up,” said Board of Governors member and real estate developer John Temple of Boca Raton.
He was talking about recent news reports that have brought to light questionable spending at USF Polytechnic.
And Temple says the price being charged to construct the first building at USF Polytechnic’s new I-4 campus is outrageous.
“These projections are not credible. The costs are out of control,” he said.
“I’m telling you, I’m looking to USF to clean this up. The president has control…(but she’s) not exercising it.”
That was a common theme, even among USF President Judy Genshaft’s allies on the board, such as Patricia Frost of Miami Beach.
“I think it’s your responsibility to be in charge there,” she told Genshaft. “It’s your branch. You appointed that chancellor.”
Alexander piled on more criticism of Genshaft and her staff.
“The contract for this building was approved by facilities folks in Tampa. So if there’s a problem with this Polytech campus, it gets to the current model for how this thing has been governed,” Alexander said.
USF officials have said a special state law prevents them from having sufficient control and oversight over USF Polytechnic.
The debate culminated in a blunt assessment of USF Polytechnic’s chancellor, Marshall Goodman, by Temple.
“My view is that, your chancellor is incompetent, and I just have to say that. And if you continued to be ignored, and not given the reports you want, are you prepared to replace him?” he asked Genshaft.
She replied, “If there is a foul-up there, if something goes awry, I need to straighten that out. So yes, I do have the authority.”
In the end, Board of Governors members said they were excited by the possibility of having an independent university focused on science, technology, engineering and math. And several members said they did not like the branch campus model, including Norman Tripp of Ft. Lauderdale.
“We have two strong universities to the south of us, Miami and FIU, and we have a strong university to the north of us, FAU, and you know what? We don’t have that same kind of economic engine in Fort Lauderdale,” Tripp said.
By a 12 to 3 margin, the Board voted for Polytechnic independence…sort of. The school still has to receive accreditation, which could take several years. And school officials have to reach certain targets for enrollment and finish construction on a certain number of buildings.
If they do that, the Board of Governors promised to give final approval for an independent Florida Polytechnic.
Before they adjourned, the Board of Governors debated one last motion: to not consider any other applications for independence from other branch campuses until Polytechnic gains its independence.
It’s something USF officials have asked for, considering their history. They’ve already lost two branch campuses: New College in Sarasota and Gulf Coast University in Ft. Myers. And then, there’s the not-too-distant memory of the failed effort to make USF St. Petersburg independent.
Genshaft took to the microphone, even as some Board of Governors members kept talking.
“I cannot stress enough how this becomes all…you don’t move ahead with your organization with this coming about. Please, please consider this,” she asked.
Genshaft got her consolation prize. On a divided voice vote, the Board promised not to consider new applications for independence…at least for a while.