LAKELAND (CBS4/NSF) – A 12th state university in Florida may be on the horizon after the Board of Governors approved a set of benchmarks for the University of South Florida Polytechnic Wednesday night.
The USF Polytechnic in Lakeland will get a chance to become an independent university, overcoming strong objections of faculty, students and several lawmakers.
But first USF Poly will have to achieve separate accreditation, an established campus that includes residence halls, and more graduates with science and technology degrees. Only then will the Board of Governors allow the university to separate itself from the University of South Florida system.
The path toward independence will not happen overnight, USF officials said, assuring existing USF Polytechnic students that they will still graduate in the next several years with USF diplomas.
The 13-3 vote by the State University System Board of Governors after a day of tense discussions underscores the influence of Sen. JD Alexander, R-Lake Wales, a longtime proponent of USF Polytechnic and the head of the powerful Senate budget committee.
Alexander appeared in person along with Senate President-designate Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, to watch the proceedings and testified himself that the USF system was holding Polytechnic back.
Gaetz urged the board to vote for the USF Polytechnic split because it was the right step to encourage more science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) graduates, a priority of his and Gov. Rick Scott’s.
Though full independence is years away, this is the first time the state has moved toward creating a new university since New College joined the 11-university system in 2001.
Alexander wields considerable influence over universities because he helps write the state’s budget. But opponents to the USF Poly split said the process was rushed and politically motivated to please Alexander.
Michael Long, a New College student and a member of the Board of Governors chosen to represent students, blasted Alexander for allegedly twisting arms on the Board of Governors.
“I don’t feel well-represented by JD Alexander…he told me personally he would quit fighting for higher education if he didn’t get his way on this issue,” Long said.
But Alexander said there was no “quid pro quo” on the vote over the USF Polytechnic.
After the vote, he called it a “good decision” that puts USF Polytechnic on the path to independence.
The USF-P independence bid has ignited debate throughout Central Florida, with faculty, students, alumni and the USF System schools largely opposed, but top administrators at USF Polytechnic, many influential business leaders in the community, and some lawmakers strongly supporting it.
One flashpoint of criticism was the speed of the school’s drive to independence. Polk County community leaders spelled out a break-off plan to the Board of Governors in a letter in July. Earlier in the summer, Polytechnic had won a major victory when it avoided a veto of $35 million for a new campus.
By this month, the Board of Governors, a body known for its deliberate nature, was poised to vote on full approval for independence, despite objections from USF System President Judy Genshaft.
“With very few exceptions, our students, our faculty, our alumni, have expressed their strong, strong interest and desire to keep the USF System intact,” Genshaft told the Board of Governors.
Some Board of Governors members blasted the decision to let school move toward independence.
The most outspoken critic was John Temple, a real estate developer, who called the proposal put forward by Regional Chancellor of Polytechnic Marshall Goodman a “piece of crap” and a “mess.”
“We are not ready now,” Temple said, saying it would cost the state a lot of money to move forward.
The most vocal opponents in the Legislature are Sen. Paula Dockery, R-Lakeland, and Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, who have called for financial audits of USF Polytechnic.
Both wrote letters to the Board of Governors this week urging the board to oppose the bid to make USF Polytechnic independent. Dockery suggested the Polytechnic movement was politically motivated and rushed.
“Please make your decision based only on merit, not political considerations, threats, intimidations, and gamesmanship,” Dockery wrote, urging the board to slow down plans for approval.
The board chose instead to move forward with a plan that gives USF Polytechnic tentative approval, but with a slew of eight caveats, including that 50 percent of graduates be in science, technology, engineering, and math degrees. There was no timetable given, but accreditation can take at least three years, university officials said.
After the vote, Genshaft said she was happy a decision was made so the weeks of turmoil over the USF System may die down. She said she plans to bring in greater oversight and experts from other polytechnic universities.
It remains to be seen if the fractured relationship between the USF System and Polytechnic can be repaired. Alexander suggested to reporters that if the USF System isn’t properly assisting Polytechnic toward independence, than another sponsoring university will have to take USF’s place.
Genshaft said that would be left to the Board of Governors to decide, and reiterated and willingness to move forward. She acknowledged “bumps in the road” but vowed to “get the system working again.”
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