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Talk raises hope for four-year university

A senator touts the chances of a full-fledged university in St. Petersburg, but others see a battle.

By BARRY KLEIN

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 28, 2000


ST. PETERSBURG -- A bill that would convert the University of South Florida's St. Petersburg campus into an independent four-year school has at least a 50 percent chance of passage this year, the plan's legislative sponsor said Monday.

State Sen. Don Sullivan, R-Seminole, delivered that assessment as part of his sales pitch to members of the St. Petersburg Area Chamber of Commerce. Many in the room clearly savored the idea of a full-fledged university in the shadow of downtown.

"Is there any way we can be more aggressive about making this happen?" asked Rick Dodge, Pinellas County's economic development director.

Said St. Petersburg Mayor David Fischer: "The more independent we can make that campus the better."

Sullivan's proposal is a long way from reality. It is opposed by USF and university system Chancellor Adam Herbert and still needs a sponsor in the state House.

At the chamber meeting, former St. Petersburg City Council member Connie Kone asked what effect a split with USF would have on the nationally recognized marine science program and on partnerships with All Children's Hospital and the Florida Center for Teachers.

Pinellas County Commissioner Robert Stewart said he is reserving judgment until he is assured a new university would not hurt the area's other higher education institutions, including Eckerd College and St. Petersburg Junior College.

Bill Heller, dean of USF's St. Petersburg branch, is in a tough spot on this issue. He supports increased access in Pinellas County to a four-year degree and increased autonomy for his campus.

Both presumably would happen under Sullivan's bill, which calls for a local board of trustees to govern the school. But Heller said he would prefer to remain under USF's umbrella.

"We would like more control over resources and program development, but we're happy being part of USF," he said.

The only thing that is certain is that nothing will happen soon. Sullivan's bill requires study by the Post Secondary Education Planning Commission, an advisory group to the Legislature, governor and state Cabinet.

The open-ended nature of the bill also could slow its progress. The proposal calls for the creation of three new universities around the state, and possibly more if a need is identified. All would be limited to awarding only bachelor's and master's degrees.

The St. Petersburg school has been tentatively dubbed Suncoast University. The others would be New University on the New College campus of USF in Sarasota and Los Olas University in Broward County.

Sullivan said a new system is needed to offset Florida's poor record at producing college graduates. Only four states award fewer baccalaureate degrees each year than Florida. That has left the state woefully short of workers able to fill lucrative high-tech jobs, Sullivan said, and contributes to the chronic shortage of teachers. He said the plan won't cost taxpayers a cent because the schools will use existing facilities. An aide, however, later conceded that some additional costs are certain, if only to hire the faculty to teach the expanded curricula needed to offer four-year degrees.

Sullivan said his biggest problem in selling the bill is getting fellow lawmakers to take it seriously. "Everyone up there knows I applied to be president (of USF) and didn't get the job," he said. Some people assume "that I'm just throwing a grenade in the room."

That isn't so, he said.

"This community needs to be in control of its destiny," he said. "This is a matter of local governance."

Sullivan said he expects the fiercest opposition to come from Herbert, who last year helped secure state approval for the St. Petersburg campus to add a limited number of freshmen students. The school expects to enroll 105 freshmen this fall, up from 50 last year.

A spokesman for Herbert said the chancellor thinks there are better, and cheaper, ways to increase access to undergraduate degrees than creating another university system. That includes joint-use programs with community colleges.

Lars Hafner, who is an associate vice president at SPJC, said officials at his school do not view a new university as a threat.

"We think it would be a good complement," said Hafner, who is also a state representative.

Peter Armacost, president of Eckerd College, said a fully functioning, four-year school in Pinellas County can't be good news for his institution. As a private school, Eckerd charges $18,000 a year in tuition, several times more than state schools.

But he isn't sure there would be much difference between Sullivan's proposal and the expansion already under way at USF-St. Petersburg.

"My concern is that we use state money for higher education in the most cost-effective way possible," Armacost said. "Is creating a new system of universities the best answer? I just don't know."

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