TALLAHASSEE (NSF) – Following an agreement between Florida State University and Florida A&M University, the state Board of Governors on Thursday approved a new structure for the Tallahassee schools’ joint College of Engineering and seemingly put to rest a months-long battle over the future of the program.
Under the plan, a 12-member board comprised of high-ranking officials and students from both schools would be created to oversee the college, though three of the members — including the two student members — would not have votes. The Board of Governors, which oversees the university system, is also requesting that the Legislature fund the College of Engineering separately, instead of doing so through FSU and FAMU, and a plan to upgrade the schools facilities will be developed.
Those actions are meant to address questions about the governance of the school raised in a report by the California-based Collaborative Braintrust Consulting Firm, which said that dividing the college into two separate institutions could cost up to $1 billion and draw legal challenges on civil-rights grounds.
The agreement defuses a contentious and sometimes racially charged battle over the venture between one of the state’s flagship institutions and the prominent historically black university. A study was approved by the Legislature last year after former Sen. John Thrasher, now the president of FSU, proposed breaking up the joint college.
Tom Kuntz, a member of the Board of Governors, said the harmonious presentation at Thursday’s meeting was a surprising development given the uproar that erupted in the wake of the last legislative session.
“I don’t think I could have imagined that we could have come to a place where we are today,” Kuntz said.
For his part, Thrasher now says that he was trying to draw attention to issues at the school. Thrasher left the Senate in November to become president at Florida State.
“I was a big supporter of making sure that people understood there was a dysfunctional problem in the management of the College of Engineering, and that was reaffirmed in this report. … You don’t get the attention of people unless you kind of put yourself out there. I put myself out there last year, maybe too far, I don’t know,” he told reporters after the meeting.
Florida A&M President Elmira Mangum praised the agreement and the potential of the new school.
“I do believe that we can become that iconic engineering school that the world will be envious of,” Mangum said.
But even as it foreclosed the possibility of new engineering schools for FAMU and FSU, the Board of Governors on Thursday recommended setting aside millions of dollars to consider or work on new campuses for the University of Central Florida and the University of South Florida.
Some board members seemed concerned about the UCF plan for a campus in downtown Orlando, which received a rare, in-person endorsement from Senate President Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando. The board agreed to ask the Legislature for nearly $2.8 million, which would be combined with other funds for nearly $5.8 million to study the issue. Even there, though, past legislative battles influenced the discussion.
Board member Wayne Huizenga Jr., who said he believed the new campus would turn out to be a good investment, nonetheless pointed to an old effort by former Senate Budget Chairman JD Alexander, who pushed through a division of the University of South Florida and the satellite campus that became Florida Polytechnic University.
Huizenga asked Gardiner for assurances that “if by some reason (the study) said, you know, it doesn’t fit, it doesn’t work, that we wouldn’t end up on kind of a wild train ride where we ended up with Poly kind of getting approved.”
“If it comes back and it’s a terrible idea, we’ll address that,” Gardiner said. “But I don’t think it’s going to.”
Other members also raised concerns about the project, though the request for money for the study was approved unanimously.
“At the end of the day, it’s a great project for Orlando. It’s not a bad project — it’s a good project for UCF. Is it the best way to spend dollars? I have a question about that,” board member Dean Colson said.
The board easily approved a $17 million request to help move the University of South Florida’s College of Medicine to a location in downtown Tampa. And members signed off on an $8 million ask to help redevelop Normal Hall, an office and classroom building at the University of Florida.
The funding requests would still have to be approved by the Legislature and signed by Gov. Rick Scott.
The News Service of Florida Brandon Larrabee contributed to this report.