Tensions arise over USF control

Faculty members in St. Petersburg worry they will lose autonomy.

Published February 16, 2007

ST. PETERSBURG - Eight months after an accrediting team declared the University of South Florida St. Petersburg capable of governing its own affairs, faculty members here are afraid USF officials in Tampa may be trying to usurp their autonomy.

At best, they say, Tampa administrators don't trust their ability to make academic and financial decisions. At worst, they perceive an all-out assault on the integrity of their separate accreditation, which has its roots in a legislative mandate.

"There is great concern about the future of the St. Petersburg campus," said political science professor Daryl Paulson, who likened the conflict to a David-and-Goliath contest. "It is a very somber mood."

Tensions have mounted in recent weeks as USF St. Petersburg prepared for a "town hall" meeting today in which the university's five-year strategic plan will be discussed. USF president Judy Genshaft and other administrators from the Tampa campus are expected to attend.

Much of the concern stems from details embedded in various drafts of the strategic plan, now in its 13th revision. They include budgetary restrictions that USF St. Petersburg faculty fear could redirect resources away from their campus. A particular sticking point for many is a directive that would require the library dean in St. Petersburg to report to the Tampa campus.

"We are concerned that this is more or less the first shot over the bow," said Jim Gore, interim dean of the college of arts and sciences in St. Petersburg. "What could happen next is that other deans or program directors will be told they are no longer reporting to our academic affairs office and reporting to the Tampa office instead."

Genshaft told the St. Petersburg Times Thursday that the redirection of authority is necessary for USF to earn American Research Library status, a step along the road toward being invited to the prestigious Association of American Universities.

Accreditation at core

USF St. Petersburg faculty members will be allowed to weigh in on the strategic plan, Genshaft said. In fact, she said, they will have a chance to write their own plan "that meets their mission and goals under the larger USF goals."

Genshaft said she is "100 percent, absolutely" committed to the separate accreditation status granted the campus last summer.

"I worked so hard with them to achieve this accreditation," Genshaft said. "I'm proud of them. I will not do anything to jeopardize that accreditation."

That designation, recommended by the Commission on Colleges of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools in June, came after a six-year effort. It marked the first time in Florida a regional campus has been independently accredited.

Separate accreditation essentially brought an end to the decisionmaking role of Tampa officials on the St. Petersburg campus. It gave USF St. Petersburg the ability to hire faculty members and oversee personnel decisions, including tenure and promotion. It also gave USF St. Petersburg the green light to run its own fundraising efforts, make independent decisions about spending, and create courses and programs consistent with the needs of its students.

At a news conference last summer, USF St. Petersburg regional chancellor Karen White called the separate accreditation a defining moment in the school's 40-year history.

On Thursday, White said the St. Petersburg campus' pioneer status puts it in an interesting position.

"I think we're a bit of a test case for working through new issues," she said. "Those issues include the relationships between education boards and other entities."

It's the campus' relationship with SACS, the accrediting group, that has some USF St. Petersburg professors worried.

"The association will be coming back to review the situation, and lines of authority are a key part of that," said anthropology professor Jay Sokolovsky. "I'd like to ask Dr. Genshaft why we should not perceive moving the autonomy of the library and decentralizing the budget as counter to the legislative intent and not in accord with separate accreditation."

Worries about budget

Other professors worry that restrictions on budget autonomy could limit USF St. Petersburg's access to the money faculty bring in with their increased grant activity.

"That means we can't fund the things we need: graduate programs, research assistants, labs, infrastructure, whatever it is that you, the faculty, need to grow and be successful," USF St. Petersburg geography professor Rebecca Johns wrote in an e-mail to her colleagues.

In that e-mail, Johns urged the USF St. Petersburg faculty to attend today's meeting. Gore, the interim arts and sciences professor, sent a similar e-mail.

"We haven't told anyone to walk in there with pitchfork and firebrand," Gore said in an interview. "But certainly we want to have the whole thing explained. We want to know what implementation of the strategic plan will mean for USF St. Petersburg and what it might mean for the other regional campuses."

Donna Winchester can be reached at winchester@sptimes.com or 727 893-8413