Florida’s newest public university is fighting to keep its independence. University officials gave a long-awaited update to the state’s university governing board Thursday, but questions still abound over what will happen to the fledgling school, which is still in the start-up phase.
During the 2012 legislative session, then-senate budget chief JD Alexander spearheaded the effort to grant the University of South Florida’s Polytechnic program independence from its parent school. The process was long, at times ugly, but Alexander got his wish. And the bill breaking the schools apart—cleared the legislature.
“Well look. I voted for it. We all voted for it. It was the budget. We didn’t have a budget without Polytech, I think that was abundantly clear and I think we all remember that process abundantly well, said Florida House Speaker Will Weatherford back in February.
USF’s Polytech program was absolved, and became Florida Polytechnic University over the objections of students, faculty, staff, as well as several lawmakers, who complained of arm-twisting by Alexander. State University System Chancellor Frank Brogan says building the school from scratch isn’t easy:
“A non-existent institution suddenly is created in statute. No faculty, no personnel, no students no curriculum".
The new university received most of the financial assets of its predecessor, including a 150-acre parcel of land. What didn’t transfer, were degree programs, accreditation and buildings. All of that has to be created and that’s where the school is now.
“The only thing that was created was the need for a board of trustees. Those slots were filled ....and now they’re working to create the skeletal structure for the Polytech. The conversation today is whether people feel as though it’s sufficient," Brogan said.
Progress is going a lot slower than many people thought. And right now, the only thing Polytech has is a half-built building, and an outline of programs it wants to start up. A situation university system governing board members are expressing doubt about.
“I think that, while you throw the statute at me and say this is your job to make sure we follow it," said Polytech Chief Operating Officer Ava Parker, a former member of the Florida Board of Governors.
Parker exchanged words with board member Mori Housseini, who replied, “No, I didn’t say that. I said it’s not for us to decide if we like it or not. It’s not our job to decide on what the legislature and the governor did...we’re over that."
The testy exchange occurred over polytech’s progress, its goals of admitting students in 2014, whether that’s even realistic. Audience members, including other university presidents could be seen rolling their eyes in the background.
A focal point in whether Florida Polytech will eventually stand on its own depends largely on the kind of students it hopes to lure. The school will have to compete with other state universities with long-established programs, and Polytech will be new to the game. And Board member Elizabeth Webster says she doesn’t think Polytech can compete:
"Historically has that happened? Because coming from my perspective, I’d feel a little uneasy about taking that chance," she said.
But the school argues it can. And it hopes to attract students from nearby community colleges that already have Associates degrees. The Board of Governors initially opposed to Polytech’s creation. It wanted a more gradual split and called for letting Polytech partner with another university. Board member Norman Tripp says he still believes that would have been a better option. And House Speaker Will Weatherford continues to advocate for a partnership:
“We’re not trying to re-invent the wheel... you can just bring in a partner to show you how it works," Weatherford said Thursday, after speaking to the board prior to the Polytech update.
Creating a university from the ground up is no easy task. The last time the state built schools in a similar fashion was around 50 years ago, when the state created the University’s of North, Central and West Florida.