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Legislative leaders seek reassurance as USF consolidation plan moves ahead

Two Pinellas County Republicans want reassurance that students at the University of South Florida’s two smaller sister campuses will receive “significant benefits” under a proposed plan to consolidate the three-campus system into a single university.

Citing “years of distrust between campuses” in a letter to USF Board of Trustees Chair Brian Lamb, state Rep. Chris Sprowls and Sen. Jeff Brandes asked if there would be a commitment to invest in specific programs at USF St. Petersburg and USF Sarasota-Manatee if the “barrier to opportunity is eliminated.”

“It is simply not enough for us to state the benefits of the proposal in a legislative hearing and speak in the weeds on higher education policy, and how that interacts with the student experience,” they wrote.

Under the state’s preeminence program which rewards top-performing universities, USF Tampa will soon receive more funding. But that is currently not the case for the two smaller campuses.

The proposal would bring the USF campuses in St. Petersburg and Sarasota-Manatee back under the purview of the main campus in Tampa. Sprowls and Brandes say the proposal supports the notion that “one USF secures a bright future for our students, faculty and communities by ensuring equitable investments at each institution.”

The lawmakers said some members in the community still need some reassurance that what is being said is accurate.

“While the relationship of preeminence and regional classification act as barriers to these opportunities on campus currently, would that still be the case if USF was accredited as a single institution?” they write.

USF St. Petersburg officials first raised objections last week when a provision was added to the large House higher education bill (HB 423).

On Thursday, the St. Petersburg Area Chamber of Commerce said it wants a formal study on the effects of the proposal before the plan moves forward.

The Chamber cited concerns over the “the pace of taking this from an idea to a policy without any public process or due diligence.”

In the late 1990s, after complaints that USFSP wasn’t reaching its potential under the control of Tampa administrators, state lawmakers began the process of formally separating St. Pete from the main Tampa campus. When that effort failed, a new movement to separately accredit USFSP moved forward in 2006.

If the proposal is approved, the USF board of trustees would have one year to plan for consolidation, and another year to execute.

Read the letter below:

Mr. Brian Lamb

Chairman, USF Board of Trustees University of South Florida

4202 Fowler Avenue

Tampa, Florida 33620

January 25, 2017

Dear Chairman Lamb:

Through the collaborative efforts and hard work of students, faculty, and staff from throughout the University of South Florida, the university is poised to join the ranks of Florida’s best public universities by achieving a pre-eminent designation. This distinction recognizes USF’s success as a Research I University, its continually improving graduation rates, the hundreds of patents its received, and the many degree programs offered by the campus, including doctoral programs.

As we celebrate this achievement as a region, we write to you today on an issue that directly impacts the future of the USF System.

As you know, language was added to PCS/HB 423 directing the USF board of trustees to consolidate the accreditations of the three USF institutions: USF, USF Sarasota/Manatee, and USF St. Petersburg. The proposal gives the Trustees one year to plan for consolidation, and one year to execute.

The impetus for this proposed change is rooted in a firm belief and commitment from this legislature, and past legislatures, that performance funding, and pre-eminence provide the structure that motivates our State Universities to strive for excellence. We saw significant results from this structure last year when the University of Florida was ranked among the nation’s Top 5 public universities and USF, in their pursuit of pre-eminence, achieve great feats in research and patent acquisition.

However, while USF Tampa and its students will benefit from pre-eminence and all it affords to that institution, that success will not be shared with the entire USF Community — namely USFSP and USFSM.

As members of the Tampa Bay Delegation and residents of Pinellas County, it is our sincerest desire to create a level playing field of opportunity throughout the USF System — every student at USFSP or USFSM should share in the success of the USF System.

The consolidation proposal initiated in the House came after thoughtful consideration of the limitations on USFSP and USFSM by their regional mission and Carnegie classification.

As you know, the institutions regional classification does not permit them to share in the status, or the benefits of pre-eminence. In addition to neither institution being allowed to offer doctoral programs, there are also other limits on additional opportunities for students.

The proposal asserts the idea that a consolidated USF provides the residents of Sarasota, Manatee, Hillsborough and Pinellas access to a pre-eminent university with all the resources that prestigious distinction affords. The proposal supports the notion that one USF secures a bright future for our students, faculty and communities by ensuring equitable investments at each institution including: support for research, doctoral programs, additional degrees, and unlimited opportunity for students preparing to enter a competitive job market. It also suggests that just as a rising tide lifts all boats, one USF will allow the university to grow together in success and stature.

As you know it has been stated that the proposal will further unify the institutions by motivating USF Tampa to invest in programs and resources at the regional institutions as the performance of each will, for the first time, impact the performance-based metrics and funding for the University. These investments have short and long-term consequences to USF and all of its cities. In the short-term, funds from Tampa will be redirected to fund students, faculty, and facilities at the regional institutions which support the pre-eminent mission. In the longer view, the performance-based metrics at each of the campuses will increase thus ensuring additional dollars earned from the state through performance-based funding as well as continuing pre-eminence funding. Tampa Bay as a region will benefit mightily when top researchers are embedded in a variety of our communities and contributing their knowledge to help solve important problems in the private and public sectors.

While the list of reasons that the proposal will have a significantly positive impact on the lives and educational experience of students, as highlighted today by the unanimous support of the proposal by the State University Board of Governors, there have been some who have raised concerns. Especially, the USFSP community. It is fair to say that much of the concern of the proposal harkens back to years of distrust between the campuses, and while your leadership and that of many others have made significant strides, those wounds run deep. That is why we are writing to you today.

It is simply not enough for us to state the benefits of the proposal in a legislative hearing and speak in the weeds on higher education policy, and how that interacts with the student experience. Some members of the community need some assurances that what is being said is accurate, and that USFSP students will be receiving significant benefits from a consolidation plan.

That is why we are asking you to respond to several things that have been discussed specifically related to the USFSP campus. In speaking to members of the USFSP community, it is clear that engineering degrees, health care related degrees, research support, and doctoral programs in marine science are unmet needs at the campus.

As you are aware, St. Petersburg is the starting point to Florida’s High Tech Corridor and the location of a thriving innovation district. The innovation district includes John Hopkins All Children’s, Bayfront Hospital, SRI, NOAA, Florida Institute of Oceanography, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, USFSP, and the College of Marine Sciences.

With a thriving innovation district, that unites tech industry, health care, and the underwater world of Marine Science, this seems to be an early starting point for opportunity at USFSP. While the relationship of pre-eminence and regional classification act as barriers to these opportunities on campus currently, would that still be the case if USF was accredited as a single institution?

Can the USF board of trustees commit to the USFSP community that they will invest in these specific programs at USFSP if that barrier to opportunity is eliminated?

In addition to the programs the market is calling for in St. Petersburg, USF- Sarasota Manatee is poised to grow their programs in areas of strategic emphasis, nursing, STEM related fields, and for the first time, the opportunity to have doctoral students on campus.

Can the USF board of trustees commit to the USFSM community that they will invest in these specific programs at the Sarasota/Manatee campus if the barrier to opportunity is eliminated?

While the opportunities above are by no means the only lingering questions or concerns for the USFSP and USFSM communities, we believe it will provide clarity on the proposal if you can be clear on your intentions to bring those opportunities to students in short order if separate accreditation is no longer a barrier.

If the board of trustees is in a position to commit to the opportunities referenced above, can you provide a timeline of the necessary steps to increase academic programs at USF Sarasota/Manatee and USF St. Petersburg to us prior to the end of the 2018 legislative session?

I would also invite you and the board of trustees to offer any other insights you may have on the impact of this proposal and the potential benefits to the students of USFSP & USFSM.

It would be helpful if the board of trustees could respond to these inquires by next week, Tuesday, January 30th.

Thank you for your attention to these important issues on behalf of the USF System and the Tampa Bay region as a whole. We appreciate your work to push USF to strive for excellence, and to create pathways to prosperity for USF students systemwide.

We look forward to hearing from you.

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