University merger proposal flunks out of Legislature

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Joe Gruters said the measure should serve as a wake up call to New College.

A plan to merge the state’s two smallest universities into one of its flagship universities is officially dead.

House Speaker José Oliva admitted defeat on the proposal to consolidate New College of Florida and Florida Polytechnic Universities into the University of Florida. The bill was scheduled to be read for a second time Friday. Oliva says it didn’t have the support needed in the Senate.

“We abandoned it,” Oliva said. “It’s a shame, but that’s the process.”

The bill was on its third iteration, after Higher Education Subcommittee Randy Fine initially proposed to fold New College into Florida State University and Florida Poly into UF. The next iteration had both schools going to UF. The final amendment changed the language from merger to an acquisition, apparently so UF wouldn’t have to go through reaccreditation.

Fine argued the controversial move would save the state “tens of millions” of dollars.

It’s unclear how much of a serious proposal it ever was, leading some to wonder if it was just a distraction or a budget bargaining chip. The small universities opposed the proposal and maintained others did as well. UF never went on the record to publicly give its position. And the supposed cost savings the merger would save the state was never really substantiated. 

Florida TaxWatch, which urged the legislature to “pump the breaks” on the bill, said that not only was it “bad civics” to develop it in secret, but the “optics are also bad” because introducing it mid-session makes it look like “the fix is in for Florida Poly and New College.”

Republican Sen. Joe Gruters has New College in his district. He gives the credit to Senate President Bill Galvano, who supported consolidating the school.

The delegation played a role, and it’s great we came together, Gruters said. “But obviously Bill Galvano deserves all the credit.”

Gruters says New College should look at it like it’s wake up call. The school has been struggling to boost its enrollment. 

“They have to really think about how they are going to continue their mission. The Board (of Trustees) needs to look at all options seriously,” he said. “They have to make sure they are able to be financially viable and independent as one of Florida’s universities. 

Sen. Kelli Stargel has Florida Poly in her district and also opposed the legislation.

“I think it was a bad idea to begin with,” she said. “I was never in support of it. I expressed all of my reasons why and I guess the process has worked and the issue has gone away.”

Oliva says while it’s not going to pass this year, he believes it’s only a matter of time.

The state cost-per-degree at UF is $21,598, compared to $197,681 at New College and $180,958 at Polytechnic, according to a House staff analysis of the bill.

According to New College President Donal O’Shea and Florida Poly President Randy Avent, UF officials were caught by surprise when the House rolled out the merger proposal last month.

Students and faculty worried about details the bill did not address. For example, Fine said he did not know how long the merger would take or the details of the consolidation plans, such as which institution would be identified in diplomas of New College and Florida Poly graduates if the Senate approved the mergers.

Sarah Mueller

Sarah Mueller has extensive experience covering public policy. She earned her bachelor’s degree in journalism in 2010. She began her career covering local government in Texas, Georgia and Colorado. She returned to school in 2016 to earn a master’s degree in Public Affairs Reporting. Since then, she’s worked in public radio covering state politics in Illinois, Florida and Delaware. If you'd like to contact her, send an email to [email protected]


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