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Education

Florida Poly rises from pasture, ready for students

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Published:   |   Updated: August 3, 2014 at 06:18 PM

It wasn't until the university's “Reveal” event, which brought some 450 committed students and their parents to Lakeland three weeks ago, that Florida Polytechnic officials started to breathe a little easier.

“Everyone internally was very excited about seeing kids here,” said Randy Avent, was selected as the university's inaugural president earlier this year. “The place takes on a different dimension when you add kids. Now you can start to imagine what it's going to be like when they show up, and people are walking around the halls, and everything's up and running. That was a big boost for a lot of the people here.”

Ava Parker, the university's chief operating officer, concurred.

“You plan, and you plan, and you envision, but when you actually had family and students here … it was like the whole thing just came to life.”

A little more than two years after a central Florida lawmaker pushed through a bill creating Florida Polytechnic, on pastureland along Interstate 4, the state's 12th public university has burst into being, opening its doors this month to 500 students with classes starting Aug. 25.

There were doubters, opponents and naysayers, but the university's futuristic Innovation, Science and Technology building is complete. A residence hall and student center are nearly done, faculty and staff has been hired. Within weeks, Florida will have its first university dedicated to the science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM, fields.

“Everything's going better than expected,” said Avent. “Everything is on track.”

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The Legislature created the state's 11th university, Florida Gulf Coast in Fort Myers, in 1991; that school opened six years later. How did the Lakeland officials manage to do it in a third of that time?

Credit something Parker often referred to as “Poly time,” the breakneck pace that contractors, IT experts, curriculum planners, recruiters and administrators were forced to keep.

“When we said 'Poly time,' it didn't necessarily mean something we had to do quickly. It was also efficiency, quality, thinking outside the box, all those things that would lead to building an innovative institution,” Parker said.

The futuristic Innovation, Science and Technology building, designed by renowned architect Santiago Calatrava, is the campus' signature element, and the building's complicated design tested the experience of local contractors. One consultant told a construction industry publication it required a level of cooperation between designers and contractors he'd never seen before.

Calatrava projects have been notoriously late and over budget; the IST building is neither.

To house its students, Poly had to rapidly provide a residence hall. With no dedicated money in its operating budget, the university sought proposals from private developers willing to take on financing, constructing, furnishing and operating the center, with the developer earning a return on rents. A deal was struck in October and Jacksonville-based Vestcor Cos. says the $12 million, 200-bed residence hall will be finished on time.

To lure its first class, Poly offered students a free ride. Inaugural students will receive $5,000 scholarships for their first three years, roughly equal to tuition. The scholarship is worth $3,200 the fourth year, when the school expects to be fully accredited and students become eligible for federal financial aid.

Poly recruiters visited 200 high schools and community colleges. “Be the Next,” a documentary film, was part of the road show.

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In that slick documentary, potential students saw examples of Florida's history of innovation, from Ponce de Leon and Henry Flagler to Disney and the space program. What they didn't see was the contentious birth of Florida Polytechnic.

The school had been under the wing of the University of South Florida, first as USF Lakeland then as USF Polytechnic. Recognizing sentiment in the area for a free-standing school, the state university system's Board of Governors in 2011 issued a set of conditions from enrollment levels to accreditation that would eventually lead to the school's independence.

But in the 2012 legislative session, JD Alexander, a powerful state senator from central Florida, muscled through a bill that instantly created an independent Florida Polytechnic. He explained that USF had neglected the campus. Critics saw a power play.

“I don't want to take anything away from the students that will be there, I'm happy they were able to get into the university,” said Mike Fasano, a former Republican state senator from New Port Richey and fierce opponent of the creation of a new university.

“My concern has always been and always will be, why? USF was doing a fine job, was accredited, was well-respected not only in Florida but throughout the United States,” said Fasano, now tax collector for Pasco County. “The 'why' was because of one state senator who wanted to build a university that was not needed. And it will be at a cost of hundreds of millions of dollars to taxpayers.”

Alexander's bill creating the university was not heard in any committee in the 2012 session, a rare play for such a significant measure. But its passage by the Legislature, and endorsement by Gov. Rick Scott shortly after, sent the creation of Florida Polytechnic into high gear.

In 2013, Poly trustees said that in addition to the school's annual allocation, they would have to seek $25 million more from the Legislature to launch the school. That flew in the face of Alexander's assertion that Poly would cost no more than it would have as a USF campus, and the blowback was severe. Officials ultimately backed off and said they wouldn't need the money.

Avent, the new president, said his arrival at the 11th hour may be an advantage since he has avoided the acrimony over the Poly's conception.

“My response to people who are still dwelling on it, and saying they shouldn't have done this or that, is … let's move on. Now that it's here, let's make it successful.”

He said opposition to the school is dwindling.

“People are beginning to see that it's coming around, it's going to launch, it's going to be OK, and I think you're hearing fewer people against it these days.”

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The push for accreditation is now the top priority at Poly. Without the thumbs-up from the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, the university loses any claim of intellectual cache and is not eligible for federal funds.

“We're not trying to build a university and then go see if we can get it accredited,” Avent said. “We're spending a lot of time looking at what it takes to be accredited, and building a university around it.”

The university is expecting to be fully accredited by the end of 2016, which is also a legislative deadline.

The risk of attending — or teaching at — an unaccredited university may have deterred some potential students and faculty. But those who have taken the plunge say there was more to their decision.

“To build a nanotechnology curriculum from the ground up is the opportunity of a lifetime,” said Robert MacCuspie, a professor who had been working as a research chemist at the National Institute of Standards and Technology in Gaithersburg, Md. “We're getting the opportunity to create and define this culture to be innovative and cutting-edge. There's not the baggage of, 'We've always done it this way for 150 years.' It's, 'Can we do better? Let's do it.' That start-up culture is exciting. A lot of people who are going on this journey with us resonate with that.”

Among them are Riley Schill, a graduate of Key West High School who will study computer science and cybersecurity at Poly.

“What really got me thinking about it (Poly) was everything they're going to be able to do right off the bat,” he said. “We can really shape everything with the school that we want to start. The people seem really fun and ready to do new things.”

Avent said Poly will focus on practical and applied research. Faculty members have research experience, but have also worked in the private sector and for national laboratories, with experience in solving applied problems, he said.

Poly has dozens of industry partners including Microsoft and Cisco, and Avent vows to have Poly students working with and solving problems for those companies.

“We're hoping that will do multiple things. One, it will give the kids realistic problems and better prepare them for the work force,” Avent said. “Companies don't offer lifetime employment any more, so we have to make sure our kids are lifetime-employable. That means teach them the fundamentals — linear algebra and everything else — but also prepare them for the work force, so when they show up the first day, they've got the right skills for that.

“Second, building relationships between the kids and industry players, that will turn it into internships and potential post-graduation jobs.”

Of the 500 students expected to start classes on Aug. 25, about 380 will be first-time freshmen. One hundred are transfers from other universities, and 20 are graduate students on one of the school's two master's programs. Just 2 percent are coming from out of state.

Their average grade point average is 3.9 on the traditional four-point scale.

Poly's residence hall is full, with a short wait list, and students needing housing have been referred to off-campus apartments in the Lakeland area.

Those students will be arriving on a campus that has no track record, no fraternities or sororities, no traditions, no Rate-My-Professor records. But they're not deterred.

“Everybody else there will be in the same boat as me,” said Natalie Ekdahl from Fort Myers, who will be a freshman in electrical engineering and living in the campus residence hall. “It's not like I'll be alone. I'll have a lot of social interactions.”

Ekdahl has already been Facebooking and talking with fellow students.

“Everybody's pretty excited about it,” she said. “I think it will all come together.”

jstockfisch@tampatrib.com

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