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Gov. Scott signs bill to form independent college at USF Lakeland

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Published:   |   Updated: March 19, 2013 at 03:54 AM

The divorce was coming anyway.

Now, it will happen faster.

Gov. Rick Scott on Friday signed a bill that phases out University of South Florida Polytechnic in Lakeland and creates Florida Polytechnic University, pushing aside a more gradual approach by higher education leaders that required Poly to attain accreditation first.

"At a time when the number of graduates of Florida’s universities in the STEM fields is not projected to meet workforce needs," Scott said in a statement, "the establishment of Florida Polytechnic University will help us move the needle in the right direction."

The question now is whether Florida's 12th public university will start out on the right foot, as backers claim, helping push the state to the forefront of science and technical achievement, or whether the campus will be hobbled in the rush to put Lakeland on the higher education map.

State Sen. Paula Dockery, a Lakeland Republican who urged Scott to veto the bill, said his decision calls into question his conservative values.

"Governor Scott's signing the bill creating the unaccredited 12th University completes his transformation from political outsider to good old boy insider," Dockery said in a statement. "His pledge to be accountable to Floridians for ‘every tax dollar’ has been irrevocably broken."

Under the legislation, USF Poly moves toward elimination starting June 30 and Florida Polytechnic is established July 1. The accelerated process means the new campus will need to quickly build up infrastructure to operate outside the USF system.

That means creating a board, hiring a president and building an administration, not to mention creating an alumni network, endowment fund and fundraising operation – all the defining features of a standalone university.

 

USF administrators, faculty and students fought to keep Poly, a campaign that drew support from local civic and business leaders and the Council of 100, a powerful statewide business group.

But state Sen. JD Alexander of Winter Haven fought for immediate separation, contending that USF has neglected the Lakeland campus.

In November, Alexander had already persuaded the Board of Governors — which guides higher education in Florida — to put Poly on a path toward independence. But he raised objections anew that USF was moving too slowly. To hurry it up, he spearheaded the legislation Scott signed Friday.

Alexander was especially critical when USF President Judy Genshaft ousted her Poly chancellor, Marshall Goodman, who had been working with Alexander on independence. Soon after, Alexander, head of the powerful Senate budget committee, imposed massive cuts in the USF budget, only relenting when his bill speeding the split was finally passed.

Passage came in a compromise enabling current USF Poly students to finish out their education in Lakeland through USF. Students and faculty there had objected to being dumped into a new university that lacked accreditation.

At least for this summer semester, students, faculty and staff should "proceed as planned while the Board of Governors and USF administration prepare for Polytech’s transition," the board said.

The board will take up the transition again when it meets May 23.

USF officials noted Friday that lawmakers allocated $10 million a year under the compromise to ensure students can attend classes and graduate from USF in their local communities.

 

Here’s what likely happens next:

A new Poly board will be appointed by Scott and the Board of Governors; it selects a new Poly president. This new administration, working with the same $30 million budget allocated to USF Poly, begins to carry out the provisions of the path to independence established by the Board of Governors.

In a statement Friday, the board said, "While the Board of Governors suggested one path leading to the creation of a new Polytech, an alternative path was chosen by our elected officials and we respect that decision."

The path includes pursuing accreditation through the Southern Association of Colleges Commission on Colleges — required for a university to qualify for federal grants and student aid and for other universities to accept its credits.

President Genshaft, in a news conference Friday evening, said the school’s priority was protecting its USF Poly students and retaining the pharmacy school that had bounced between the USF Lakeland and Tampa campuses.

"We will be able to finish out those students," Genshaft said. "We will be able to keep the faculty that are there. And we will be able to absorb all of them in the University of South Florida-Tampa."

Genshaft was asked about the contentious process that now establishes the state’s next public university.

"It is a new process for the state of Florida to start a campus from scratch," she said. "I think that is something that will be learned along the way."

Reporter José Patiño Girona contributed to this report.

rmullins@tampatrib.com

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Twitter: @DailyDeadline

 

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