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Darryl Rouson, Ben Diamond worry of ‘unintended consequences’ in USF consolidation

Two Democratic lawmakers are calling for “meaningful dialogue” before moving on legislation to consolidate the University of South Florida campuses in St. Petersburg and Sarasota-Manatee with the main Tampa campus.

State Sen. Darryl Rouson and Rep. Ben Diamond, who represent St. Petersburg in the Legislature, sent a joint letter Friday to USF Board of Trustees President Brian Lamb. It is just the latest manifestation of growing concerns by St. Petersburg officials on the fast-moving consolidation proposal.

In the letter, Rouson and Diamond pose some questions left unclear since the bill — sponsored by Fort Myers Republican Ray Rodrigues in the House and Bradenton Republican Bill Galvano in the Senate — surfaced last month.

“How would the proposal impact student admissions and access by minority students to enrollment at the various campuses?” the letter asks.

They continue: “How would the proposal impact academic programs offered and faculty hiring? How would accreditation consolidation impact USF St Pete’s ability to lead in the innovation district and more broadly in the continued successful economic development of St. Petersburg? How would accreditation consolidation potentially help all campuses as USF seeks to achieve the excellence standards necessary for pre-eminent university funding from the State of Florida?”

USFSP and USFSM currently operate separately from the main campus in Tampa under its own accreditation. USFSP received accreditation in 2006; USFSM followed suit in 2011, creating the USF System.

USF trustees would have until Jan. 15, 2019, to adopt and submit a plan to phase out separate accreditation for the Sarasota-Manatee and St. Petersburg campuses. Accreditation for the branch campuses would have to be terminated by June 30, 2020, according to the proposed revision.

That proposed change was buried in the final pages of the House’s version of a higher education bill.

A similar version already passed the Senate unanimously.

Among those dead-set against the plan: the St. Petersburg business establishment.

Letters opposing the proposal came from the St. Pete Chamber, St. Petersburg City Council, Pinellas County Board of County Commissioners, Pinellas County Economic Development Council, the Dali Museum, and the Retired Faculty and Staff Association of USF St. Petersburg.

In their missive to Lamb, the Democratic lawmakers noted that in crafting the legislation, there had been a noticeable lack of transparency. No public legislative committees workshopped the bill before the start of Session, nor was it ever discussed at any meeting of the USF Board of Trustees.

Read the text of the letter below:

Dear Mr. Lamb:

Thank you for your leadership of the University of South Florida Board of Trustees. We are writing to share with you our concerns regarding Florida House Bill 423, which directs the USF Board of Trustees to phase out the independent accreditation of the University of South Florida St. Petersburg.

We recognize that proponents of accreditation consolidation believe it will be in the best interests of the students and faculty of all three institutions.

We know this proposal is offered by our colleagues with the sincere goal of increasing funding and opportunities for the University of South Florida St. Petersburg.

We also recognize that regional cooperation is critical to the success of Tampa Bay for so many public policy issues — including providing the best higher education possible for our students.

However, the proposed accreditation consolidation would have many consequences, some intended, and many unintended.

The proposal was not workshopped in any of the public legislative committees prior to the start of the 2018 legislative session in either the Florida House or the Florida Senate. The proposal was not discussed, as far as we can tell, at any USF Board of Trustees meeting leading up to the start of this legislative session, or any faculty senate meeting, or any student government meeting, on any of the three campuses. Community and business leaders that had worked for years to support USF St Petersburg had not heard about the proposal in any Chamber of Commerce meeting or at any other forum prior to the release of House Bill 423.

In our view, a decision of this magnitude must be carefully studied. There should be an opportunity for meaningful community input before the Legislature decides to reverse course and direct the Board of Trustees down a path toward accreditation consolidation. As you know, there is a long history here that must be considered.

For years, there was concern that Tampa administrators were not offering appropriate consideration for issues relating to scheduling, hiring, and budgeting on the St. Petersburg campus.

Eventually, after much discussion and debate, the Legislature determined in 2006 that the campuses would be better served through independent accreditation and governance. Since that decision was made, USF St. Petersburg has grown into a successful and thriving campus of 5,000 students. Its academic programs and opportunities for students have become a source of pride for all of us in Pinellas County.

There are many questions that must be considered relating to accreditation consolidation.

How would the proposal impact student admissions and access by minority students to enrollment at the various campuses?

How would the proposal impact academic programs offered and faculty hiring?

How would accreditation consolidation impact USF St Pete’s ability to lead in the innovation district and more broadly in the continued successful economic development of St. Petersburg?

How would accreditation consolidation potentially help all campuses as USF seeks to achieve the excellence standards necessary for pre-eminent university funding from the State of Florida?

In our view, these questions, and many others, deserve study, and meaningful public discussion and input, prior to any legislative direction is given to start down a path toward accreditation consolidation. We believe that the bill should be changed to direct the appointment of a study committee which includes student, faculty, and administrators from each campus, as well as business leaders from Pinellas, Hillsborough and Manatee/Sarasota. The study committee should hold public meetings on each campus.

If the study committee determines accreditation consolidation is indeed in the best interests of the students on all three campuses, then there will be additional questions to consider.

How should the governance structure of the Board of Trustees be changed to ensure appropriate representation from each of the counties on the Board?

How would budgeting decisions be made in Tampa in a more transparent and appropriate manner?

What would be the role for St. Petersburg’s student and faculty leaders under a new arrangement?

The St. Petersburg Chamber, St. Petersburg City Council, Pinellas County Board of County Commissioners, Pinellas County Economic Development Council, the Dali Museum, and the Retired Faculty and Staff Association of USF St. Petersburg have all sent letters stating their opposition to this proposal.

We have raised our concerns with this proposal to legislative leaders in the Florida House and Florida Senate, and will continue to do so. This is not a partisan matter, it is one of education.

We have also each met individually with President Genshaft to share with her our concerns, and advocate for a more deliberative and public approach to the discussion and analysis of these issues. We welcome your feedback and look forward to discussing this issue further with you.

Thank you, Chairman Lamb, for your leadership and consideration.

Sincerely,

Ben Diamond

Representative, Florida House, District 68

Darryl Rouson

Senator, Florida Senate, District 19

Written By

Mitch Perry has been a reporter with Extensive Enterprises since November of 2014. Previously, he served five years as political editor of the alternative newsweekly Creative Loafing. Mitch also was assistant news director with WMNF 88.5 FM in Tampa from 2000-2009, and currently hosts MidPoint, a weekly talk show, on WMNF on Thursday afternoons. He began his reporting career at KPFA radio in Berkeley and is a San Francisco native who has lived in Tampa since 2000. Mitch can be reached at mitch.perry@floridapolitics.com.

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