A new era for USF St. Petersburg
By STEPHEN HEGARTY, Times Staff Writer
ST. PETERSBURG -- Four years ago Tina Kerti was set to start college at the University of South Florida and making arrangements to move near the Tampa campus. She even put down a holding fee on an apartment.
Then at a graduation party, she learned that she might be able to take all of her courses on the St. Petersburg campus near where she lived.
"I didn't want to move, but I thought I had to take courses in Tampa," Kerti recalled.
She never made that move. Kerti, 21, stayed in St. Petersburg and never set foot in a Tampa classroom.
She graduates today with a degree in elementary education as the first USF St. Petersburg graduate to earn a degree while taking all of her courses at the waterfront campus.
In the near future, dozens of students are expected to graduate after spending all of their classroom time in St. Petersburg -- an impossible achievement until the campus was allowed to offer lower-level courses four years ago.
As the first such graduate, Kerti is something of a symbol of the campus' changing status. It now has a four-year mission, plans for a growth spurt and campus wide construction, and greater independence from the main Tampa campus.
In days after today's graduation ceremony, USF St. Petersburg should learn more about the future of its campus and about what autonomy and independence really mean.
Campus Executive Officer Bill Heller and USF President Judy Genshaft will travel to Atlanta on Tuesday to meet with the group that can grant separate accreditation to the St. Petersburg campus.
The Southern Association of Colleges and Schools has concerns about USF St. Petersburg's move toward autonomy. If separate accreditation is to be granted, the association wants to see evidence of true independence.
Will that accreditation require that USF St. Petersburg handle tenure and promotions on its own? Will curriculum decisions be made in Tampa or St. Petersburg? Will it require a reconfigured diploma?
"Separate accreditation means we're on our own," said Darryl Paulson, a political science professor at USF St. Petersburg. "That's our own budget, our own tenure decisions, our own academic programs. If we don't have that, we're not truly independent -- in the eyes of SACS (the accreditation group)."
Heller and Genshaft have met twice in the past two weeks and will meet again before the Atlanta meeting to make sure, as Heller put it, "we're both singing out of the same song book."
For years, faculty at USF St. Petersburg joked that they and the other regional campuses were "The colonies" -- distant outposts, forced to wrangle for resources from Tampa.
A lot has changed. Two of those regional campuses now are separate institutions: Florida Gulf Coast University in Fort Myers and New College in Sarasota.
Despite some threats, there are no plans for USF St. Petersburg to sever ties with USF altogether. But lawmakers led by Sen. Don Sullivan of St. Petersburg set out to redefine the campus' relationship with the Tampa campus and see to it that St. Petersburg is no longer shortchanged.
To get that accomplished, lawmakers said USF St. Petersburg should have autonomy in financial matters, and that Tampa should cooperate so that the St. Petersburg campus could achieve separate accreditation.
How that separate accreditation is achieved will go a long way toward defining how independent the campus will be. Heller, Genshaft and the accrediting association are now engaging in a balancing act.
The toughest matters to resolve appear to involve curriculum and decisions related to tenure and promotion. The accreditation association wrote that "it is unclear why the Campus Executive Officer would not be the final authority on matters of promotion on his own campus."
Regardless of how those matters are resolved, Heller and his campus board will have a lot more power.
"Right now I can't change a word in a course title without approval from Tampa," Heller said.
The diploma Bethany Cravin gets today at the graduation ceremony in St. Petersburg will read "The University of South Florida."
It's the same diploma given to graduates in Tampa's ceremony on Saturday, even though she took all but one of her classes in St. Petersburg. (She took one elective in Tampa.) That's fine with Cravin, an elementary education major.
"I loved attending the St. Petersburg campus," Cravin said. "But I would want the overall USF diploma."
If USF St. Petersburg gains separate accreditation, the diploma likely would change. Perhaps it's merely a symbolic detail, but changing the diploma neatly sums up what is at stake and how compromises can be reached.
Do students want a diploma from St. Petersburg or from the larger research institution with a growing reputation?
Campus chief Heller favors a diploma that essentially splits the difference, one that says "University of South Florida," and then below that "degree conferred at USF St. Petersburg." It's the sort of compromise that might afford students the advantages of both worlds, and might help resolve sticky issues.
"I'm living in two worlds right now, but I like that," said psychology professor Mark Pezzo, who teaches in St. Petersburg, but regularly travels to Tampa where he works with a graduate student.
"When I applied for this job," Pezzo said, "I wanted to come to St. Petersburg. But I like the interaction with Tampa. I believe we're still going to have all that. It seems to me we're headed toward the best possible world."
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