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USF Poly'tech wins tentative approval for independence

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USF Polytech website
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By Lynn Hatter

http://stream.publicbroadcasting.net/production/mp3/wfsu/local-wfsu-993304.mp3

Tallahassee, FL – On a vote of 13-to-three, the Florida Board of Governors has approved a plan to start the University of South Florida Polytechnic campus on a path toward independence. Lynn Hatter reports the vote comes after months of lobbying pitting the Polytech campus against strong opposition from the main campus, faculty and students.

The debate about whether to allow USF's Polytechnic campus to become independent was tense, with powerful supporters like Senate-president Designate Don Gaetz challenging the board to put their money, where their mouth is:

"I hear it every year, hear it said now every day in Tallahassee, from the people here at the table, and from the people that you hire to come talk to me, that the best investment in economic development and in the future of Florida is higher education. But if that's true when you lobby me, then it's double-ly true when the polytechnic team makes its convincing and compelling case to you.

Gaetz wants to see more graduates in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math. The Board of Governors itself has lobbied lawmakers for more money to put into STEM programs. The issue of whether to allow USF- Poly to split off from the main USF campus has become highly political, with powerful lawmakers on both sides. Senators Mike Fasano and Paula Dockery both opposed the split, and during the meeting a letter from Dockery was read aloud:

"Consider what is being asked: a 12th independent university to be formed when the funding has not been secured Campus has no buildings. Student enrollment is 1300 and many of them want to stay with USF. Faculty has not been hired for true polytechnic programs. Polytechnic programs have not been developed. Accreditation has been placed on hold and will take several years to achieve without the USF ties. And students will lose all benefits of being connected to USF, an established university."

And strongly echoing those concerns was board member John Temple, who also voted no.

"Alumni have said no, Faculty have said no, Students have said no. The newspapers, state lawmakers I mean, what more evidence do you need and I understand we've only graduated one student in engineering. How can we rely on these recommendations?"

Also joining the loud chorus of "no" were students, faculty and staff of the University of South Florida. The most passionate call against a split came from Student Board member Michael Long, who is also the student body president at New College of Florida. Long criticized the move, but reserved his harshest remarks for Senator JD Alexander.

"I think I speak for all the students here today when I say that I don't feel very well represented by JD and his comments and him leveling his power in the legislature to tell to us today that he's the one man whose helped support our higher education when he told me personally that he'd quit fighting for higher education if he didn't get what he wanted on this issue."

Despite concerns about the cost of the program, whether it would be accredited and if students could be guaranteed degree recognition and job opportunities when they graduate, more members of the board felt the opportunity for an independent Polytechnic school in the state outweighed the risks involved with a start-up. Among them was board member Norman Tripp. Tripp led the motion to lay out a pathway for USF Poly's Independence. He also noted that most of the members of the board are political appointees.

"For us to say that somehow we're going to come up with a process that will take out all the politics we're surrounded by and that we're just going to see hard facts and numbers, that's not going to happen. So, I would like to propose a motion. I would move to approve the concept of USF Polytechnic becoming a free-standing institution contingent upon meeting the following criteria..."

USF Polytech would have to achieve full accreditation, set up degree programs, and have an equivalent of 1244 students with at least half of them in direct science, technology, engineering math programs. The plan was approved after more than four hours of debate. Following the approval of the split, the board also approved another motion NOT to consider any other bids for independence for five years, or until the USF-Poly split is finalized.