A campus compromise
© St. Petersburg Times, published February 17, 2001
The compromise legislation announced Friday to grant greater autonomy to the University of South Florida's St. Petersburg campus may not be the last word on the campus' future. However, the proposal does represent a timely political truce that allows USF officials to concentrate on protecting the school's broader interests during a period of great turmoil for the entire state university system.
Unless there are hidden land mines buried in the legislation's fine print, the agreement appears to serve the best interests of USF, as well as those of Pinellas County residents who historically have been underserved by the university system. The St. Petersburg campus would have its own board of trustees and operate under an independent budget for undergraduate academics and new construction. That new level of autonomy should help to consolidate the long-range plans USF officials already have begun to put in place to expand the undergraduate curriculum in St. Petersburg. At the same time, the established graduate and research programs on the St. Petersburg campus, such as the nationally recognized College of Marine Sciences, would retain their affiliation with the main USF campus in Tampa.
The proposal represents a constructive compromise for which several people can claim credit. State Sen. Jim Sebesta, whose district includes parts of Hillsborough and Pinellas counties, stepped in to avert a dispute that threatened to damage USF campuses on both sides of the bay. State Rep. Frank Farkas, who will introduce the legislation in the House, provided a clear-eyed perspective of the campus' and community's priorities. State Sen. Don Sullivan, who has been pushing to transform the St. Petersburg campus into an independent university, agreed to set aside, at least for now, aspects of his plan that would have done the campus much more harm than good, particularly in terms of destroying its links to the Tampa campus' graduate and research assets.
Most of all, though, this compromise is a testament to the seat-of-the-pants political skills of USF President Judy Genshaft, who must feel as though she was parachuted behind enemy lines when she landed at USF. Genshaft still hasn't been officially inaugurated, and she has already earned a couple of Purple Hearts. Sullivan started working full bore to establish an independent university in St. Petersburg well before Genshaft arrived in Florida. She immediately began seeking areas of common ground with Sullivan and other influential lawmakers. She also went to work to win over Pinellas leaders who had tentatively backed Sullivan's plans. By explaining the advantages for the St. Petersburg campus in remaining part of USF and by offering new proposals to make undergraduate education more accessible for thousands of Pinellas residents, she built community support.
Genshaft can't take off her flak jacket just yet. Like the U.S. military, she has to be prepared to fight at least two wars at once. At another Friday press conference, Sullivan and St. Petersburg Junior College officials announced a plan to make SPJC the first community college in Florida to offer four-year degrees. This may turn out to be a good way to address the state's shortage of nurses and teachers. But in a rational world, this is the sort of policy change made by higher education officials, not politicians.
Florida's university system is essentially rudderless right now. Chancellor Adam Herbert has resigned, the Board of Regents is being abolished, and Gov. Jeb Bush and the Legislature haven't yet put a new governing structure in place. Some lawmakers expect -- and even encourage -- a costly free-for-all in which our universities and community colleges will compete to be all things to all students. In such a treacherous environment, USF officials can't afford to be diverted by a dispute over the USF campus. Friday's agreement should strengthen USF and bring long-awaited opportunities for those hoping to make full use of the St. Petersburg campus.
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