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    USF committed to community

    By Times staff writer

    © St. Petersburg Times, published February 21, 2001

    The University of South Florida's St. Petersburg campus used to be a waterfront enclave that set itself apart, socially as well as physically, from the downtown community and surrounding neighborhoods. The campus' relationship with its neighbors is much healthier these days. USF faculty, staff and students are more actively engaged in civic life than ever before. And thanks to an agreement this month that gives the St. Petersburg campus greater autonomy within USF, campus leaders should be able to move even more quickly to build constructive relationships with local groups that can benefit from their energy and expertise.

    St. Petersburg campus Dean Bill Heller has made it a priority to strengthen the campus' civic involvement. After racial disturbances rocked nearby neighborhoods in 1996, Heller and other USF officials worked with the city to create the Urban Initiative, which has helped to coordinate economic and educational help for residents of some of St. Petersburg's most disadvantaged neighborhoods. Heller also has set a personal example by volunteering for a variety of other civic duties not directly related to USF, such as chairing the task force to save Sunken Gardens.

    Heller, the guest speaker at last November's annual community interfaith Thanksgiving service in St. Petersburg, said he wanted to use the occasion to "focus on the value of people and how we can be thankful and appreciate the different kinds of people we have." The area surrounding USF's St. Petersburg campus, on the southern edge of downtown, has developed into a diverse and lively community that contributes more than ever to the city's economy and culture.

    Along the way, the personal and political ties forged by Heller and other USF officials have helped to win community support for USF's broader plans for the St. Petersburg campus. Back when the campus seemed more removed from the lives of its neighbors, area residents might have felt they had little to lose in pushing for an independent university in south Pinellas. Now residents may have a clearer vision of the best of both worlds: Bolstered by its affiliation with a major research university, the St. Petersburg campus is raising its own profile by committing more of its energy and expertise to improving the quality of life in its own community.

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