Putting Education Reform To The Test

USF Polytechnic: Five Pros and Five Cons for Independence

Alfonso Architects

The plan for USF Polytechnic's Lakeland campus.

USF Polytechnic could soon shed the “USF” and become Florida’s 12th independent public university, but is that a good idea?

On Wednesday afternoon, Florida’s Board of Governors is scheduled to talk about, and perhaps vote on, whether USF Polytechnic in Polk County should be allowed to split from the University of South Florida.

(Full disclosure here — I work for WUSF Public Media, which is part of USF.)

USFP already bills itself as “the state’s only polytechnic.” The word comes from the Greek word polytechnos, which means “skilled in many arts.” It emphasizes math, science, and technical disciplines.

The effort has the backing of the man who controls the purse strings to an increasingly tight state budget — Senate Finance Chairman J.D. Alexander, R-Lake Wales.

How powerful is Alexander? In a year when almost every state program went under the knife, he convinced the state legislature and Gov. Rick Scott to spend $35 million on the new “stunning campus” designed by internationally-acclaimed architect Santiago Calatrava.

But other leaders in Polk County are raising questions about the cost and wisdom of the split, including fellow Polk County state Senator Paula Dockery, R-Lakeland.

It’s been a contentious debate. First, the arguments FOR Polytechnic to split from USF:

  1. It’s happened before. Several times. Gulf Coast University and New College were once part of USF. Heck, even USF was founded over the objections of supporters of the University of Florida and other state universities.
  2. USF hasn’t invested enough in USFP. Alexander has made this claim.
  3. Polk County is primed for growth. The new university will be right off I-4, halfway between Tampa and Orlando.
  4. Being independent would allow Florida Polytechnic to develop the programs it needs without having to worry about competition with other USF campuses.
  5. And as Alexander himself said, “Polk County needs a major university. It does not need to have as its growth industries trash dumps and prisons.”

And the arguments AGAINST a USF Polytechnic split:

  1. The current students don’t want it. By a large margin.
  2. The current faculty is against it, too.
  3. People are raising questions about the cost, especially when the state budget continues to get squeezed.
  4. Others say it might be a good idea, but why do we need to decide right now? (Hint: the answer rhymes with “oleander,” and is term-limited out of office next year.)
  5. There are questions about USFP Chancellor Marshall Goodman’s expenditures, such as $10,000 for Star Wars, Captain Kirk, E.T. and other futuristic statues. Also, Goodman’s son was hired at USFP.

State Sen. J.D. Alexander is the driving force behind the independence push.

We asked St. Petersburg Times reporter Kim Wilmath about these claims. She says she’s still trying to make sense of the 50-page business plan USFP released last week.

“It’s really hard to pin down where they get these things,” she said. “As far as what it will actually cost and what kind of enrollment they actually might have, that remains to be seen.”

She said a lot of people are asking, “What’s the rush?” Why is it that this has to be shoved through right now?

“Isn’t there maybe a period that we need to study this idea, and weigh the pros and cons, and how much this is going to cost, and look into real closely the business model for this plan, especially in a time when there’s not much funding to go around for the existing 11 universities,” she said.

A lot of people point to Alexander, who’s in his final term in the state Senate because of term limits.

“How can you blame him? This is what he wants to give back to his community,” she said.

The Board could resolve the issue Wednesday, or they could put it off. Either way, the state legislature is bound to weigh in later, Wilmath said.


About StateImpact

StateImpact seeks to inform and engage local communities with broadcast and online news focused on how state government decisions affect your lives.
Learn More »