With just four weeks left in the legislative session, University of South Florida president Judy Genshaft and key state lawmakers have yet to sell Pinellas County civic and political leaders on phasing out USF St. Petersburg’s separate accreditation and folding it back into the major research university. The concept may have merit, but lawmakers have to add guarantees the St. Petersburg campus will be enhanced and treated fairly for this proposal to win more public support and move forward.
A key opportunity to flesh out the plan proposed by Rep. Chris Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor, could come as early as Thursday when the legislation, HB 423, could make its final committee stop before a vote by the full House. To his credit, Sprowls plans to add details in the House Education Committee aimed at easing the concerns raised by USFSP supporters.
Here are five areas that should be addressed:
• Developing the plan. The legislation now directs the USF Board of Trustees to submit a plan to the Board of Governors, which oversees the state university system, in January 2019 to phase out separate accreditation for USFSP and USF Sarasota-Manatee. The plan should be developed by a separate panel with broader representation that includes voices from the regional campuses and their communities.
• Governance. The legislation should require significant representation from Pinellas on the USF Board of Trustees, a strong leader at USFSP who would report directly to Genshaft, and a separate campus board for USFSP.
• Programs. The legislation should direct the panel creating the plan to specify areas of distinction that would be delivered in St. Petersburg, such as engineering, technology, health care or communications. It should require the panel to make recommendations in other key areas such as adding doctoral programs in St. Petersburg that are critical to research, and defining the relationships between the separate schools of business, education and communications. Named colleges, such as the Kate Tiedemann College of Business at USFSP, should keep their names.
• Student Access. The legislation should require the panel to recommend whether there should be one common admissions application and standard for the entire university. If the campuses keep their distinct identities, how would USFSP accommodate Pinellas students, particularly minority students, who now have the grades and test scores to be admitted to USFSP but not to USF in Tampa?
• Transparency. The legislation should require budget transparency that would enable the public to easily monitor how USF allocates its financial resources between the Tampa and St. Petersburg campuses, and there should be mandatory annual reports to legislative leaders.
Sprowls makes a reasonable argument for merging USF campuses, but his failure to sell the concept before he quietly rolled it out last month was a mistake. So was Genshaft’s initial lack of candor and quick shift from neutrality to enthusiastic support. On the record as opposing the change or urging a time-out: St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman, the St. Petersburg City Council, the Pinellas County Commission, the St. Petersburg Area Chamber of Commerce, the Pinellas County Economic Development Council, the St. Petersburg branch of the NAACP, St. Petersburg’s Council of Neighborhood Associations and USFSP’s Retired Faculty/Staff Association.
There are other views. Dr. Jonathan Ellen, president and CEO of Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital, makes a thoughtful argument to support the merger. The St. Petersburg Downtown Partnership suggests ways to improve Sprowls’ approach. But there are an awful lot of skeptics to convince. Sprowls should add considerable detail to the legislation. St. Petersburg’s state senators, Republican Jeff Brandes and Democrat Darryl Rouson, should help improve the concept or seek a time-out. Ending USFSP’s separate accreditation and creating a unified pre-eminent USF may have merit, but it will not be good for anyone if this is viewed as a hostile takeover.