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Poly boosters want to move beyond rancor

The Tampa Tribune
Published:   |   Updated: March 18, 2013 at 04:19 PM
LAKELAND -

The message from the Polk County leaders on Thursday was clear:

Florida Polytechnic University is coming, and everyone needs to forget the controversy and do what they can to help the fledgling school.

"Let's put the past behind us," said Cliff Otto, co-chair of a group launched this week to act as a booster club for the new university.

He's one of about 70 Polk business and community leaders who joined Florida Poly Vision Inc., to be a "positive and supportive voice" for Poly, he said.

But state Sen. JD Alexander, a Lake Wales Republican, can't quite let the bitterness go, even though he got his way with the creation of the new university.

"I don't believe the right story has been told by the USF administration," he said at the group's first rally, repeating months-old claims that the University of South Florida had hindered the growth of its Lakeland campus, called USF Polytechnic.

He was among several politicians at the gathering, including state Reps. Kelli Stargel and Ben Albritton, Polk County Republicans.

The Legislature voted in March to shut down the campus and immediately create a new university from scratch in Lakeland. The vote came about nine months after Alexander began pushing to make USF Polytechnic independent.

As the plan rolled forward, Alexander ratcheted up his criticism of USF, dismissing a state Board of Governors decision that granted independence only after the campus had met several benchmarks under USF supervision.

Alexander devised a bill to cut USF out of the process after several campus staff changes, including the dismissal of the chancellor, Marshall Goodman, who had joined the independence effort.

Alexander pushed his bill through the Legislature. As chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, he threatened at one point to cut USF's state funding by nearly 60 percent, unleashing protest from USF supporters.

Otto, president of supply logistics company Saddle Creek Corp., said Polk business leaders now worry that the controversy surrounding the Polytechnic will hinder its growth.

The "turmoil and negativity" in the news about Poly doesn't reflect its vital mission, he said, which is to produce graduates who can move immediately into high-skill science, engineering and technology jobs.

"It's important for all of us, especially the leaders, to support this university," said another co-chairman, Victor Story, president of an eastern Polk family farm company.

Florida Polytechnic is in a precarious position because it doesn't have a board of trustees yet, though USF is required to transfer most of its campus assets to the new university in less than a month.

The Board of Governors announced Thursday it would extend the deadline for those looking for a place on the board until Monday afternoon after a crush of applications. The board had received about 40 applications for five trustees spots. The governor will appoint an additional six trustees.

Alexander, who leaves office this year under term limits, said he didn't know who had applied. He'd asked "a handful" of people to put their names in, but stopped "because of all the criticism of me."

He plans to have "no role" with the Poly Vision group, he said.

"I will stand on the sidelines and support their efforts. … This is not about me."


lpeterson@tampatrib.com (813) 259-7834 Twitter @TBO_USFetc

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